When the Patriots run
Will Stevan Ridley spend Sunday night in the backfield or the doghouse after his latest costly fumble? Betting here that he gets another chance. The Patriots need to get balanced, and a confident Ridley goes a long way to getting them there. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is a straight-ahead runner with good vision. He finds creases quickly and can sift through traffic and bounce off tackles at the second level. He’s a rhythm player, so the more work he gets, the better he gets. But that’s only happening if he wraps the piggy up tight. Big, thick LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250) is downhill runner who makes defenders uncomfortable with deceptive speed and obvious power. Contact involving Blount just sounds painful. Shane Vereen (5-10, 205) is quick and slick. He runs low and with power. He has good vision and will find cutback lanes. A perfect change-of-pace guy. New England had success against Carolina running inside thanks to solid blocking from left guard Logan Mankins (he’s beastly and relentless) and center Ryan Wendell (he’s quick and athletic). For Denver, twin tackles Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton (6-3, 335) and Kevin Vickerson (6-5, 328) are the first line of defense. Neither post big tackle numbers but they can occupy bodies and clear paths for relentless linebackers Danny Trevathan (6-1, 240) and Wesley Woodyard (6 feet, 233). Trevathan has excellent recognition skills, is fast, and hits bigger than his size. Woodyard locates the ball quickly and explodes into running backs.
Denver defense: 92.7 (fourth)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady is coming off one of his best performances of the season — and he’ll need an even better one Sunday night for the Patriots to have any shot at keeping pace with the high-flying Broncos. Finally playing with his full complement of weapons, Brady showed poise and patience as he got everyone involved. Expect more of the same. The Broncos can bring the heat with Von Miller and Shaun Phillips. Miller has a great first step and will overwhelm pass protectors with speed and surprising power. Phillips is athletic and has great closing speed — he smells QBs. New England’s big uglies, especially tackles Nate Solder (he’s athletic and strong but will get beat) and Marcus Cannon (hey, watch those legs!) have to hold the fort. Brady will use screens to Shane Vereen and quick hits to possession pass catchers Julian Edelman (he’s more quick than fast) and Danny Amendola (he’s fearless with strong hands), and Rob Gronkowski (he’s big, reliable, and beastly) to keep the defense honest before taking some shots downfield with young pups Aaron Dobson (he has the skills but he needs to show a little more fight) and Kenbrell Thompkins (he’s big and fast but needs to improve his focus). There may be no Champ Bailey in the Denver secondary but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (perhaps the longest arms in the league) is an exceptional cornerback. Fellow corners Tony Carter and Chris Harris are raw, while Quentin Jammer has definitely lost a step. Safeties Duke Ihenacho (he’s very aggressive), David Bruton (he’s strong), and Mike Adams (he’s wily) are average.
When the Broncos run
Knowshon Moreno is having a solid season after back-to-back injury-riddled campaigns. Of course, having Peyton Manning do most of the work will lead to solid seasons. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder (he sure looks bigger) has outstanding vision, patience, and explosiveness. He will slide down the line, follow his blocks, and burst through seams. Moreno runs with energy and will bounce onto the second level and spin off would-be tacklers. He makes a lot of yards after first contact. Rookie Montee Ball (5-10, 215) is an instinctive runner who is quick to the hole and will meet tacklers head-on, often inflicting more damage than he absorbs. The very definition of a workhorse back in college, he’ll never have to be one in this offense. He should have fresh legs to help milk the clock in the fourth quarter. Ronnie Hillman (5-9, 200) is a compact speedster who lacks power. If he sees the hole quickly, he’ll burst through, but if he dances, he’s cooked. Center Manny Ramirez (6-3, 326) is athletic and powerful. He bends his knees and launches himself into defenders. That’s Manny being Manny. Left guard Zane Beadles (6-4, 305) and right guard Louis Vasquez (6-5, 335) are technically sound and give great effort to finish their blocks. The Patriots are still struggling against the run; Jerod Mayo is still the second-leading tackler and he hasn’t played in a month. Tackles Chris Jones (6-2, 302) and Isaac Sopoaga (6-2, 330) get their faces in the mix. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower need to be more visible.
When the Broncos pass
Peyton Manning is at the controls of one of the most potent offenses the NFL has seen. Manning, at or near the top of every list of great QBs ever compiled, is extraordinarily instinctive and intelligent. Other than his lack of mobility, there are no holes in his game. Manning has awesome presnap recognition, deciphers defenses quickly, and will audible out of bad matchups and into favorable ones frequently. There isn’t a defense out there that the 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pounder hasn’t seen or, at some point, shredded. Manning has an extremely quick release, and though his passes aren’t always aesthetically pleasing (don’t let the wobbles fool you), he is extremely accurate and leads his receivers beautifully. He is such a thorough professional that even Patriots fans have to acknowledge his greatness. Manning has an awesome stable of receivers led by Wes Welker, the ultratough slotman with quick feet and sure hands. He gets open quickly and will shake defenders. Welker (5-9, 185) does, however, take a ton of big hits. Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) has excellent size, speed, and field awareness. Eric Decker (6-3, 214) is another big target with above-average athleticism and quickness. He explodes in and out of his breaks and is strong after the catch. Julius Thomas (6-5, 250) is an excellent receiving tight end. He has strong hands and runs well after the catch. He will outrun linebackers and over safeties. He is a beast in the red zone (10 TDs). Manning would excel against New England’s secondary even if it were at full strength. In its current state, he will torture them.
Broncos’ key player: Von Miller
An explosive linebacker off the edge, the 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pounder is equally adept at collapsing the pocket and hunting down ball carriers. Oh, and he has fresh legs after serving a six-game suspension to start the season.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With power and passion. The fiery Miller has a lightning-quick first step and good closing burst. He is a violent hitter with a nonstop motor.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By sending extra guys at him (this means you, Gronk). Miller is thin, especially his lower body, and he can get jostled around and lost in a crowd.
BRONCOS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Wrap it up: The Patriots will need every break in the book to win. So Denver can’t help them out by turning the ball over.
2. Max protect: Peyton Manning is already hobbling with a high ankle sprain. The blockers can’t allow him to take any more shots. Remember, Brock Osweiler is your understudy.
3. We be jamming: I always wondered why more teams didn’t blast Wes Welker at the line to disrupt his route-running when he was a Patriot. Maybe the Patriots will.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Hide and seek: Peyton Manning is going to figure out your defense. But you have to at least make it challenging by disguising your coverages until the last possible second.
2. Ground control: Establishing a running game is a must. It allows you to keep the clock ticking and keep the ball out of Manning’s hands.
3. Holliday season: Good things do come in small packages. Trindon Holliday (all 5-5, 160 pounds of him) is one of the slickest return guys in the league. Do not lose track of him.