Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field (kickoff 1:05 p.m.):
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Run, baby, run. The Patriots? Yep.
While all four remaining teams in the playoffs have solid ground games, New England has ridden the backs of its backs the most effectively. Sure, QB Tom Brady (12) is among the best ever and is seeking a fourth Super Bowl ring, but he's also among the smartest ever. Brady knows that if his trio of runners - LeGarrette Blount (29), Stevan Ridley (22) and Shane Vereen (34) - are gouging the opponent, it's the best approach to keep at it.
Blount has been unstoppable recently, rushing for 431 yards and eight TDs in the last three games. He scored four times in the rout of Indianapolis last week and is the power back the Patriots have lacked for a while.
That they've gotten such production behind an offensive line that entered the season with some uncertainty has been impressive, too. Left guard Logan Mankins (70) and Leadville native and left tackle Nate Solder (77) anchor the group, which has allowed only six sacks in the last four games.
Give Brady time and it's a recipe for defeat for the opposition. So Denver has a dilemma: Would it rather force the clutch-passing Brady to go to the air or deal with the run game?
The Broncos' defense was staunch for most of the divisional round win over San Diego, but it has lots of holes. It ranked 19th this season, is without its best player, injured LB Von Miller, so there's vulnerability.
Losing CB Chris Harris (25) to a knee injury won't help, either. A hefty burden will be placed on the front seven to bottle up the run and get some pressure on Brady when he throws. That would make things much more comfortable for DBs Champ Bailey (24), and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (45).
Although Brady's crew of targets was significantly downgraded this season by the departure of WR Wes Welker - to Denver, of all places - and Brandon Lloyd, injuries to TE Rob Gronkowski, and the arrest of TE Aaron Hernandez on murder charges, he's made the best of it. In fact, he's helped turn Julian Edelman (11) into another Welker.
Danny Amendola (80) is another pint-sized wideout, and the rest of the receivers have contributed in spots.
Not having to deal with Gronk should make Denver LBs Danny Trevathan (59) and Wesley Woodyard (52) more available in all defensive areas. If the line, led by DT Terrance Knighton (94) and end Shaun Phillips (90) gets some penetration and slows the running game, it will make the Patriots more one-dimensional.
Then again, is that such a good thing when Brady is chucking the ball?
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Things are a lot more simple on Denver's offense. Sure, RB Knowshon Moreno (27) has been a mainstay and had a career-best 224 yards on a career-high 37 carries in a November loss at Foxborough. And rookie Montee Ball (28) can be a significant contributor.
But everyone knows this attack is all about QB Peyton Manning (18).
Manning broke Brady's single-season marks with 55 TD passes and 5,477 yards in the air, and the Broncos established an NFL record with 606 points. It would be the capper to one of the greatest careers in league history for Manning to get his second championship, and he has the supporting cast to do so.
The main problem is that New England has had his number. Manning is 4-10 against Brady, and the defenses schemed by Patriots coach Bill Belichick often have puzzled him.
The Patriots' defense, sparked by DE-LB Rob Ninkovich (50), DE Chandler Jones (95) and LB Jamie Collins (91) really has come on late in the season as Belichick kept plugging in new faces when regulars went down with injuries. That New England lost its best two defenders, DT Vince Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo, and prospered is somewhat amazing.
Belichick will instruct his DBs, led by Devin McCourty (32) and Aqib Talib (31) to be extra-physical from the outset. It's a plan that has worked for New England for a few decades, going back to the 2002 Super Bowl upset of a similarly high-powered offense, the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."
So the ability of receivers big - Demaryius Thomas (88), Eric Decker (87) and TE Julius Thomas (80) - and small (No. 83 Welker) to avoid those bumps and remain on their routes will be critical for Denver. Manning has to hope the officials also aren't particularly lenient in what they allow the Patriots to do on defense. It has happened before - often.
Welker's contributions will be of the highest interest, because the Patriots know his game inside-out. Denver's best matchup through the air could wind up being tight end Thomas, particularly if he draws coverage from a linebacker such as Collins or Dont'a Hightower (54).
Denver PK Matt Prater (5) broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal and might have the strongest leg in the league. But New England's Stephen Gostkowski (3) is no slouch. Both are reliable in tight situations and from distance; in Denver's thin air, that's important.
Ryan Allen was sidelined with a right shoulder injury in the victory over Indianapolis, so their punting situation is somewhat uncertain. Of course, they hope they never have to punt the ball back to Manning.
Denver's Britton Colquitt (4) is among the NFL's top punters.
The only game-breaker among the kick returners is Denver's Trindon Holliday (11), who must show he can hang onto the ball. Blount has done well on kickoff returns, including an 83-yarder.
New England's coverage units are strong, while Denver's are not nearly as stingy.
Belichick bested John Fox when Fox was coaching Carolina in the 2004 Super Bowl. Obviously, Belichick is seeking a fourth Super Bowl title, rare territory, and hasn't won it since the 2005. He'll come up with something on both sides of the ball that will trouble Denver.
Fox, who missed a month of the schedule after heart surgery, is a strong motivator, too, and is smart enough to keep the reins very loose on Manning. His background is in defense, but that's where the Broncos have struggled under him this season, in large part because they lost five defenders to IR and injuries to Woodyard and Bailey made them backups for most of 2013.
Start with Brady having lost his last two Super Bowls and not playing particularly well in either of them.
Add in Manning seeking his third trip to the big game - and an emphatic stamp of approval as a championship QB.
The Broncos also are spurred on by their meltdown late in last year's playoff loss to Baltimore at home. New England is driven by no championships in nearly a decade.
Neither side will forget the regular-season meeting, either. Denver wants to replicate the first half in which it forced a slew of turnovers and went ahead 24-0. New England wants to carry the momentum from its second-half surge to victory.
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