Nov 24, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after a completed pass against the Denver Broncos during overtime at Gillette Stadium Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
KUSA - Sure, the New England offense has rushed for more yards than Tom Brady has thrown in the past three games, but it's hard to believe that trend will continue Sunday when the Patriots play at Denver for the AFC conference title.
The Broncos' defense won't be caught thinking run, run, run - even though LaGarrette Blount and his fellow backs have rushed for 643 yards to Brady's 458 yards passing in the past month.
Brady's 75 passes in the past three games are the lowest in his career for a three-game stretch. In his last game against Denver, Brady threw 50 times.
"That's always a priority," Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson said of stopping the Patriots' run game. "But you can't let them beat you over the top, because you can't take one over the other. So it's going to be out there just trying to stop them on everything - that's what we're going to go out there and try to do."
Leading the Patriots' recent upsurge in the run game is the emergence of the 250-pound Blount, who had 166 yards in last Sunday's win against Indianapolis after 189 yards in the season finale against Buffalo.
Before that, Blount's best game this season was 65 yards against Tampa Bay in Week 3, and his previous career-best was 164 yards as a rookie in 2010 (Week 12 against Seattle when he played for the Buccaneers). Coming into this season, Blount had seven 100-yard games. But in the Week 12 game against Denver, Blount carried the ball three times and lost two fumbles.
"The way he's running, the way we've blocked offensively, it's never a problem for me to check to a run because they're executing it so well," Brady said.
Much of the talk the past week has been Brady's 10-4 record against Peyton Manning, but more to the point is Brady's 7-0 record against Jack Del Rio's defenses. The latest in the streak was Brady's comeback from a 24-0 halftime deficit to win 34-31 in overtime in November, and includes New England's playoff wins in 2005 and '07 when Del Rio was head coach at Jacksonville.
Brady is 171-of-235 passing (73 percent) for 1,771 yards, 17 touchdowns with zero interceptions against Del Rio defenses. In the Nov. 24 game, Brady finished 34-of-50 passing for 344 yards and three TDs; he was 9-of-16 passing at halftime for just 70 yards and was sacked three times. The Patriots lost three (of six) fumbles in the first half (one by Brady on a sack by Von Miller).
But with a 24-0 lead, Manning was just 8-of-14 for 61 yards in the half in what would end up being his worst game of the season.
"We want to find a way to do enough defensively to give the ball back to our offense and make sure that we put ourselves in a position to win the football game," said Del Rio, who in the Nov. 24 matchup also was interim head coach as well as defensive coordinator. "We understand how big a challenge it is with a really good running game, with a really good quarterback - a lot of different weapons that can do things."
One outlet missing who was a big influence in that second-half comeback is tight end Rob Gronkowski. He sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Dec. 8 win vs. Cleveland. Gronkowski overpowered the Broncos' secondary in the November comeback with six of his seven catches in the second half for 86 yards. He had a big 33-yard catch to set up New England's first touchdown in the second half then a six-yard score for their third TD of the third quarter.
The Patriots also took advantage of the first-half injury to Broncos' cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC is back on the right side, but the Pats can look to the left corner, which will be without Chris Harris Jr. He tore the ACL in his left knee against San Diego.
How Del Rio adjusts will be an interesting matchup Sunday. Will Del Rio play struggling veteran Champ Bailey out there on an island or rotate with Tony Carter, Quentin Jammer and other defensive backs?
"We need everybody that's going to be up, corners, safeties that are involved and that get a uniform," Del Rio said earlier this week. "I wouldn't isolate on any one guy. I think we've got a number of guys that will be up and used in different combinations and the guys that play need to play well."
Added linebacker Danny Trevathan: "Champ is a big leader. ... You know when he's out there because he talks to you real smooth and lets you know everything is all right. When you're out there with Champ, you just get a good vibe from him."
Good vibe or not, Denver has to figure out a way to carry out Del Rio's gameplan enough to end his losing streak. On the contrary, Brady is 4-5 all-time against Denver- 1-1 in the playoffs.
With changes in the offseason and recent injuries, Brady has been relying on Danny Amendola, who took the slot receiver spot after Wes Welker left to join the Broncos, and Julian Edelman, who the Patriots drafted in 2009.
It didn't take long. Amendola had 10 catches in the Patriots' season-opener and three 100-yard games. Edelman has a team-high 105 receptions for 1,056 yards this season after 65 combined catches (714 yards) in his first four years in New England (all behind Welker).
"Their No. 1 guy last year [Welker] is on our team," Bailey said. "There is a lot of turnover always in that organization. One thing about Brady, he overcomes that."
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