GoLocalProv Experts’ “Fast 5”- Patriots @ Broncos AFC Championship Preview
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
This Sunday's AFC Championship Game is layered with major storylines. Patriots vs. Broncos, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning...it's as if this was the way this season was always meant to shape up. In addition to the 2 best quarterbacks of the new millennium, the Conference Championship Game features 2 teams that have overcome devastating injuries to key players, inclement weather, and any other roadblocks they've faced this season.
With so much to talk about, the GoLocalProv Sports Team got together to debate and discuss 5 key hot button issues regarding Sunday's game. Running back resurgences, injury impacts, weather worries, QB legacies, and, of course, that all important final prediction on which team walks off the field victorious on Sunday evening.
John Rooke (follow him on twitter @JRBroadcaster), Scott Cordischi (@ScottCordischi), Michael Parente (@MichaelParente), and Jack Andrade (@RealJackAndrade) give their takes and predictions leading into Sunday's historic matchup. Without further ado, here's the experts' "Fast 5."
1. Which Stable of Running Backs would you rather have Sunday: LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen (Patriots) or Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball (Broncos)
Rooke: I'll take the Patriots' stable of backs. Not because I'm partial or I might know them better...but they seem to have developed a unique blend of mixing and contrasting styles...Blount force trauma, Ridley riddles the middle, Vereen's versatility makes them tough to plan for.
Cordischi: I’ll take the Patriots' stable of running backs. During the regular season, the Patriots ranked 9th in the NFL in rushing (2,065 yards, 4.4 per carry) while Denver ranked 15th (1,873, 4.1). In the postseason, New England ranks first running the ball (234 yards, 5.1) while Denver ranks 6th (133, 3.9).
Parente: It’s hard to pick against Moreno and Ball given the fact they combined for an ungodly 264 yards – 224 by Moreno alone – when the Broncos played at Gillette Stadium in November, but that was a gift and a curse for Denver; their success kept the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands, which left the Broncos' conservative and trigger-shy offensively. That won’t happen Sunday. This is going to be Manning’s game to win or lose, whereas the Patriots have become incredibly on Blount in recent weeks; the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer has rushed for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games and has scored eight touchdowns in three weeks, including a franchise record four rushing touchdowns in last weekend’s playoff win against Indianapolis. Ride the hot hide and go with Blount.
Andrade: It’s hard to imagine this after the first meeting between these two teams (when Moreno gashed New England for 200+ yards and Ridley and Blount were benched for fumbling) but right now the Patriots' trifecta in the backfield is the backbone of their offense and the better bet to take over the game on Sunday. Time of possession will play a huge role in keeping Manning on the sidelines, and if Blount continues to run hard between the tackles, Ridley serves as a serviceable changeup, and Vereen is the 3rd down weapon that extends drives in key moments, the Patriots will be in good position to gas the Broncos' defense in the high altitude and control the game.
2. Which injured player will be missed most by his team on Sunday? Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski, Broncos Linebacker Von Miller, or someone else?
Rooke: The injured CB Chris Harris' loss is liable to be felt greater than any other, just because it's the most recent. That, and expect TB12 to pick on Quentin Jammer, or whoever replaces him...a lot.
Cordischi: This may be the toughest question to answer as Miller makes just as much of an impact for Denver defensively as Gronkowski does for the Patriots on offense. They are two of the best at their respective positions. Let’s call this one a draw.
Parente: Gronkowski might seem like the obvious choice, but LeGarrette Blount’s performance last weekend in the red zone with three 2-yard touchdown runs appears to have solved the problem the Patriots had without Gronkowski inside the 20-yard line. The player whose absence might affect this game the most is Broncos’ defensive back Chris Harris, who tore his ACL Sunday against the Chargers. A third-year pro who was undrafted out of college, Harris emerged as Denver’s most consistent defensive back this season. He played on every defensive package and lined up wherever the coaching staff asked him to. As good as Blount has been, the Patriots still have a two-time Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm, and Tom Brady is no doubt licking his chops in anticipation of exploiting Harris’ absence.
Andrade: As great as Miller is, Gronkowski is the missing piece that will be missed most on Sunday. Think back to last year’s AFC Title game, when the Ravens took advantage of a Gronk-less Pats' offense in the 2nd half and shut the Patriots down by maintaining their pass rushing lanes and getting their hands up to bat down passes over the middle to the Patriots’ vertically challenged receiving options. Over the past month or so the Patriots have compensated for the loss of Brady’s lone reliable target over 6 feet tall by pounding teams on the ground and reinventing their offense on the fly. But what happens if the Broncos sell out against the run and ruin the Patriots' gameplan the way they were able to last week against San Diego? Then the Patriots might be out of answers and out of lifelines.
3. Weather Forecast: Which team has the advantage in Wintery conditions?
Rooke: There's no doubt in my mind the worse the weather, the better the Patriots' chances...especially with a running game as dominant as it has been. 50 degrees and sun doesn't sound like much for this Sunday...so it appears to be a non-factor for now.
Cordischi: If there were wintery conditions, that would clearly favor the Patriots. Let’s not forget that Peyton Manning has been a dome quarterback for most of his career and his record in temperatures below 40 degrees is not great. However, the expected forecast for Sunday is calling for mostly sunny skies and temperatures to expected to be in the upper 50’s with only a slight breeze of up to 9 mph. That favors the better passing team which, in this case, is Denver.
Parente: The idea of Peyton Manning being unable to handle wintry conditions is a myth perpetuated by two awful playoff performances at Foxboro in 2003 and 2004 while still a member of the Indianapolis Colts. The reality is Manning’s cold-weather numbers are better than most quarterbacks’ numbers in all conditions. He’s that good. So is Tom Brady, who has played his entire career in frosty Foxboro. In fact, his breakthrough game occurred 12 years ago in a near-blizzard at the old Foxboro Stadium against the Oakland Raiders in the now-infamous “Tuck Rule” game. This could quite honestly wind up a push, but since the Patriots appear more intent on running the ball, you have to give them the slight edge if the weather is lousy Sunday afternoon.
Andrade: The worse the conditions, the better the Patriots will be suited. Wind is the preferred weather hindrance to the Broncos, as was seen earlier this season in Foxboro when the elements bothered Manning to the point where Bill Belichick TOOK THE WIND after winning the overtime coin toss and essentially dared Manning to beat his defense. Snow and rain favors the Patriots’ ground and pound style, but it’s not as significant advantage as wind because in wet and slippery conditions the Broncos’ receivers (namely Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker) will be extremely difficult to defend on crisp routes and in after-the-catch situations.
4. Which Quarterback has more on the line in terms of legacy Sunday- Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?
Rooke: Legacy game? It's important for both. More so, I would guess, for Manning...just because he hasn't won as much as TB12 has, and Brady has a 10-4 lifetime record in the head-to-head match up. But Brady is currently viewed as slipping, only due to Father Time's inexorable march. A SB win for Brady could put him in the #1 spot - all time...
Cordischi: There is no doubt that the weight of the world is on Peyton Manning’s shoulders in this one. Start with the fact that Denver is the #1-seed playing at home and favored to win by a touchdown. Head-to-head, Manning is 4-10 lifetime against Tom Brady. Add to that the fact that he has a losing playoff record and has 1 Super Bowl ring to Brady’s 3. If the Broncos lose, the debate is over with. Brady is the choice. If Denver wins, the argument over which quarterback is better lives on.
Parente: Both Manning and Brady will wind up in the Hall of Fame once they decide to call it quits, so neither quarterback really has to worry about another playoff loss ruining his legacy, but, in the court of public opinion, Manning still hasn’t done enough in the postseason to warrant being considered the greatest of all-time despite arguably being the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history. That distinction is typically reserved for the likes of Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls in as many tries, and Brady, who won three in his first five years as a pro. Manning has one, too, but also has a lifetime 10-11 record in the postseason, which includes eight one-and-dones. Brady has been immune to criticism in recent years despite losing two Super Bowls and posting a pedestrian 8-7 playoff record since the team’s Super Bowl title in 2004, but the whispers are starting to register at a more deafening pace. The window of opportunity closes a little more in New England with each playoff failure, but, regardless of what happens this weekend, Brady’s legacy appears set. It’s Manning who can’t afford another loss to his arch-rival.
Andrade: On the line for Brady: A trip to a 6th Super Bowl (a record) and a chance to win his 4th ring (vaulting him over his childhood idol Joe Montana as the best QB of all-time). For Manning: A trip to his 3rd Super Bowl, a chance to win his second (and pull within 1 of Brady), and to even the playoff series with Tom Terrific at 2 games apiece. I’m giving the nod to Brady. The opportunity to establish himself as the best ever easily trumps Manning’s attempt to simply approach Brady’s playoff legacy and continue the debate about which QB will be remembered as the better of the two.
5. Prediction- Winner, Score, and key to the game
Rooke: So many will take the Broncos largely due to home field. And they would be smart to do so. They have a lot of weapons for a depleted Pats defense to track down. That being said, NE loves being a "dog." They've usually responded well to these situations, so I'll go out on the limb with Patriots 30, Broncos 27.
Cordischi: It would appear that the Patriots have all of the ingredients to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Sunday. They finally have a healthy secondary with Talib, Dennard, McCourty and Gregory and a running game that can control the ball and the clock. However, I have had a pit in my stomach over this game since these two teams met in Foxboro back in November. At that time, I felt like whichever team earned the home field advantage would rate the edge in a playoff match-up. Well, here we are and the game will be played in Denver. As much as I hope I am wrong, I say Broncos 34, Patriots 27.
Parente: The Broncos will be less conservative this time and put their trust in Manning, who will do just enough against a depleted, inexperienced New England secondary to guide Denver to its first conference championship since 1998. The defense, which shut down Ryan Mathews last weekend, will contain Blount enough to put the pressure on Brady, who will find out the cupboard’s pretty bare without Gronkowski. Barring any surprise mishaps on special teams, the Broncos escape with a 27-24 win.
Andrade: I’m expecting a lower scoring game than some analysts are predicting, with both teams attempting to shorten the game by winning the time of possession and keeping the opposing offense on the sidelines. In the end, a close 4th quarter game pitting Tom and Bill against Manning and John Fox is just not a scenario I can confidently side with the Broncos, so I’m taking the Patriots on a last second field goal from Stephen Gostkowski, 27-24.