A look at some of the biggest issues that can come up when the Patriots visit the Broncos in the AFC title game on Sunday:
Can the Patriots avoid their own mistakes?
The Patriots made their Nov. 24 win over the Broncos much harder than it had to be. Lost fumbles on their first three drives helped stake the Broncos to a 24-0 halftime lead. Once they settled down, the Patriots dominated the Broncos, outscoring them, 34-7, over the second half and overtime. So avoiding mistakes is critical, especially since their margin for error will be much slimmer in the AFC title game at Denver than it was for a midseason game in Foxborough.
The Patriots seem to have vastly improved their ball security. The Broncos contest marked the third consecutive game with a lost fumble from Stevan Ridley, who was benched after that miscue. Since beating the Broncos, the Patriots have lost only one fumble — against the Browns (which Cleveland could not turn into any points). In fact, they have turned the ball over only five times in six games. Such ball control is critical to playoff success.
Even Ridley appears to have regained the trust of his coaches. He has lost his role as the main tailback option but has been entrusted with 41 rushing attempts in the last three games. Ridley validated that trust with two touchdowns in the playoff win against the Colts, and has not fumbled since the Broncos game. Still, his history of fumbling (he’s lost four total this season and has lost a fumble in the playoffs each of the past two years) is worth bearing in mind if he is carrying the ball in a crucial spot Sunday.
Can Patriots secondary shut down Peyton Manning’s passing attack?
The stat line for the Patriots secondary from the Broncos’ trip to Foxborough in November looks respectable at first. Manning threw for just 150 yards, had two touchdown passes, and threw an interception that the Patriots turned into a go-ahead touchdown. But a glance at the Broncos’ 280 rushing yards shows the Patriots probably decided to thwart Manning’s aerial attack at the expense of allowing Knowshon Moreno to run wild.
Manning’s 150 passing yards were a season low for him, and he’ll have Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas (who missed the first game) back in his arsenal Sunday. So odds are the Broncos will find a way to allow Manning and his receivers to do more damage in the rematch.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they are not dealing with any major injuries in the secondary. They’ve had a bit of a roller coaster performance late this season. In early December, for example, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, and Ryan Tannehill carved them up for 975 passing yards and six touchdowns. In the past three games, however, they’ve held marquee quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck largely in check, while surrendering just three touchdown passes and picking off six.
For the Patriots, the keys will be limiting the big-play opportunities of the Broncos and finding an opportunity to force a turnover by Manning, who has thrown six interceptions in three previous playoff games against the Patriots.
Will the Patriots’ rushing attack continue its success?
The Patriots have rushed for an eye-popping average of 214 yards over their last three games. That’s a formula that’s seldom been seen during the Tom Brady era. But it’s also a formula that could lead to the Super Bowl if it continues in Denver.
In the Broncos, the Patriots will see a more potent run defense than they’ve encountered recently. The Broncos have surrendered an average of just 72 rushing yards over their last three games — even if some of that is due to Denver taking control of each game early and forcing the opponent to play from behind.
The Broncos, who tied for the seventh-best run defense in the regular season, will be the best unit the Patriots have seen in two months. But Denver will be encountering a Patriots rushing offense that is in a groove.
And if the Broncos overcommit to stopping the LeGarrette Blount/Stevan Ridley/Shane Vereen/Brandon Bolden mix, they will expose themselves to an aerial attack from Tom Brady. So it’s a fine line they will need to straddle.
Expect the threat that Brady poses (and smart use of play-action calls, which worked against the Colts) to open rushing lanes for the Patriots, even if it’s for a less-gaudy total than they’ve amassed in recent weeks.
Will the Broncos’ weakened secondary prompt the Patriots to change course?
It might be trendy now to call Tom Brady a game manager of an old-school, smash-mouth offense after the past few weeks. But the Broncos (against whom Brady threw six TD passes in the playoffs two years ago) know too well how dangerous Brady can be.
The knee injury suffered by Denver cornerback Chris Harris last week puts a big dent in a unit that ranked 27th in the regular season. It was after Harris was injured in the third quarter Sunday that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was able to start moving the ball in San Diego’s ill-fated comeback.
Harris’s absence probably means that aging veterans Champ Bailey (35) and Quentin Jammer (34) have to move up the depth chart.
The Broncos were already without linebacker Von Miller and the pass-rushing threat he brings. So they have a patched-together unit that may tempt the Patriots to lean less on the power-rushing recipe that has worked so well for them in recent weeks.
Who’s a player that could turn the tables?
Keep an eye on Julius Thomas, the Broncos’ Pro Bowl tight end whose career exploded this season. Thomas missed the first game against the Patriots but has been a go-to guy for Peyton Manning much of the season.
It was Thomas whom Manning turned to Sunday when the Broncos, clinging to a 7-point lead, faced a third-and-17 and then a third-and-6 during their game-icing drive. A failure to convert would have given the ball back to the red-hot Chargers offense. Instead, Thomas gained two critical first downs that allowed the Broncos to run out the clock.
Thomas scored 12 touchdowns this season, and his 65 catches made him one of five Broncos with at least 60.
He’s a dangerous weapon and a safety net for Manning, who has long cultivated the go-to tight end. And he could be a major thorn in the side of the Patriots, who must also account for Demaryius Thomas (92 catches), Eric Decker (87 catches), Wes Welker (73 catches), and Knowshon Moreno (60 catches) when Manning is passing.