For the third straight year, the New England Patriots are just one win away from another trip to the Superbowl. Are you surprised? This has been a roller-coaster of a year. Who’s standing in the way this season? Old nemesis Peyton Manning and his record-breaking 55 TDs and 5,477 yards will host the quarterback with the most wins (18) in NFL Playoff history, Tom Brady. Peyton Manning is 10-11 in the postseason.
In the Superbowl era, Belichick & Brady have had more games together (191) as starting QB and head coach then Shula & Marino (184) and Noll & Bradshaw (158). The Patriots have gone 148-43 (.775) since 2001, an incredible accomplishment. Their improbable 12-4 regular season record is a true reflection of the “system” Belichick has put in place for the past dozen years. It’s no secret that rookies and reserves have stepped up in absence of multiple key starters being lost for the season (Wilfork, Mayo, Vollmer, Gronk, Welker, Hernandez). While Brady versus Manning is still the main attraction of Sunday afternoon, there are a bunch of impactful story-lines and keys to victory in this matchup of epic proportions. In the past 62 games, the Patriots have only been outscored by 8 points or more in just 2 games (Steelers 2011 and Ravens AFC Championship 2012). This will be a tight game with a small margin for error on both sides of the ball. Check out my collection of notable areas to keep an eye on during the AFC Championship:
1) Red Zone Efficiency: The Broncos are 1st in the NFL having scored a touchdown in 76.6% of their trips inside the 20-yard line compared to the Patriots’ 57.8% clip. Holding Denver to a few field goals is integral for New England. Manning lead his squad to a NFL record 606 total points for, averaging out to 37.1 PPG. Despite being held to 13 against the Jets and 6 points against the Bengals, the Patriots rounded off the year averaging 28.6 PPG and 35.1 PPG over their past 9 games – Indianapolis included. If the New England defense can make a few plays in their own territory with their backs against the wall, it will bode well for another chance at snagging the Lombardi trophy. Assuming the Broncos receive the opening kick-off, going down a few touchdowns on the road is not a good look.
2) Time Management: Keeping the ball out of Peyton’s hands is inevitable; however, controlling the clock is not. The Patriots have developed a signature style of smash-mouth football over the past few weeks lead by impressive performances from the ever-consistent offensive line and LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots are 3rd in the NFL in 4th quarter time-of-possession at 55.1%, compared to the Broncos’ 50.8%. New England and Denver both score the most at 11.2 points per 4th quarter, which is interesting considering the Pats are 23rd in the NFL in the 2nd quarter scoring an average of 6.5 compared to the Broncos’ 9.7. Time management is crucial but Demaryius Thomas can break one at the blink of an eye. The key is for the defense to put the offense in a position to pound the rock and burn the clock.
3) Special Teams: A wild sequence of events lead to a Colts safety, Ryan Allen injury, Brady PAT holding and Gostkowski’s first career punts. In an analysis put together by Dallas News’
Rick Gosselin, the Patriots rank 1st overall in Special Teams. The stat includes 22 different categories but this is no surprise to the New England faithful. Belichick preaches execution in all three aspects of the game every week. Gostkowski had a career year kicking38/41 FGs and stepped up admirably averaging 41.8 YPP on 5 punts and a long of 53 yards in the Divisional Round. Ryan Allen is back to practice and is expected to play on Sunday. Football is a game of inches and whether it’s a punt pinned inside the 5 or a PAT hold, every play matters. A clean special teams performance will put less pressure on the offense and defense.
Stay tuned on game day for part two of my preview and a final score prediction!