What: Patriots at Broncos
When: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Three reasons I like the Patriots
1. The running of LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley will be a huge X-factor.
Tom Brady has a legitimate running game to work with, making him even tougher for the Broncos to contain. Blount is averaging 143.6 yards over the past three games, giving the Patriots an excellent chance to control time of possession. Denver can defend the run well, but if Blount gets going, that will keep Peyton Manning where the Patriots want him – on the sideline.
2. Bill Belichick will focus on taking away Manning’s short passing game.
Belichick is a masterful defensive coach who likes to take away his opponent’s greatest strength. Many of Manning’s throws are no more than 12 yards downfield, hitting receivers like Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, and Wes Welker in perfect stride, allowing them to run after the catch. Look for the Patriots’ corners and linebackers to play tight coverage near the line of scrimmage, and risk giving up the deep ball if Manning wants to take shots downfield. Stopping the Broncos’ potent attack is extremely difficult. But when these two teams met in November, the Broncos only scored seven points in the second half, and the Patriots came from 24 points down to win, 34-31, in overtime. That second-half is the defensive blueprint the Patriots will use for this game.
3. The Patriots take better care of the football
New England was plus nine in turnover differential during the regular season, while the Broncos were even. Turnovers are magnified in playoff games, and whether it’s on offense or special teams, the Broncos are inclined to make more mistakes. That could make the difference.
Prediction: The Broncos are favored, and it would hardly be shocking to see them win. But when Brady and Manning go head-to-head, my gut tells me to go with Brady. I like the Patriots, 28-23.