Getting to know the Broncos, again

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
5:00
AM ET
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In this case, the teams have changed, but many of the primary faces involved remain the same.

The New England Patriots, led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, will head to another AFC Championship Game appearance, set to take on a Peyton Manning-led team.

The Denver Broncos and Patriots met during the regular season in one of the signature contests of the season. After kicking themselves with a string of turnovers in the first quarter -- leading to an early 24-0 deficit -- the Patriots crawled back with an exceptional second-half effort, eventually winning late in overtime on a 31-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.

Because of that game, the national exposure the Broncos have generated this season and the Denver players that many were previously familiar with, this already is a well-known team.

However, here’s our closer look at the Broncos, which will highlight different players from those in our first “Getting to know the Broncos” post.

Record: 14-3 (AFC West champs, No. 1 seed in the AFC)
Head coach: John Fox (third season)
Offensive coordinator: Adam Gase
Defensive coordinator: Jack Del Rio

THREE MORE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. RB Knowshon Moreno. Thought by many to be a possible cut before the season, Moreno has not only stuck around on the roster, he’s been a leading back for Denver. While the team has a pair of youngsters in Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, second- and third-round picks, respectively, Moreno is the most dependable and well-rounded of the group, excelling in pass protection, a critical component for playing with Manning. He had a career day against the Patriots in November, with 224 rushing yards on 37 carries, including a touchdown.

2. G Louis Vasquez. The Broncos worked hard to fill a major need this past offseason in free agency, paying big for the former Charger to land him as an interior offensive line building block. The results have been overwhelmingly positive, as Vasquez’ strong 2013 resulted in his first All-Pro selection. He’s helped keep Manning upright while also springing holes for Moreno, Ball and Hillman.

3. LT Chris Clark. The Broncos have dealt with their share of injury issues this season, including the loss of left tackle Ryan Clady, an All-Pro type talent when healthy. The team turned to Winston Justice first in Clady’s absence, but Clark has taken over of late. That’s a new look for the Patriots, who saw Justice back in November. The 28-year-old veteran has been with Denver since the 2010 season.

THREE MORE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE Shaun Phillips. With Von Miller out for the year due to a torn ACL, Phillips has become the Broncos' top pass-rushing option. He delivered with 10 sacks during the regular season to go along with a pair of forced fumbles, one of which came against the Patriots. The 32-year-old isn’t quite the athlete that made him a dynamic rusher in San Diego for many seasons, but he remains an effective edge player that the Patriots will have to keep their eyes on this Sunday.

2. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Another free agent added this past offseason, DRC had a strong year for Denver, as he’s been tabbed a Pro Bowl alternate. He was tied for the team lead with three interceptions, one of which he returned 75 yards for a touchdown. The former Eagle and Cardinal is an exceptionally reactive athlete who can hang with perimeter receivers. He had a pass breakup in the first meeting between the teams.

3. DT Sylvester Williams. The Broncos’ top pick in this past year’s draft, Williams has come on of late. He finished the regular season with just 19 tackles, but 12 of those came in the final three games, while he also added his two sacks during that stretch. The Broncos yielded the sixth-fewest rushing yards per game this season, but given how the Patriots have run the ball of late, Williams is likely to be involved in major action this Sunday. He’ll be put to the test by Logan Mankins and the rest of the Patriots’ interior offensive line.

OTHER NOTES: Kicker Matt Prater was named to the Pro Bowl for Denver, and he set a record for the longest field goal in NFL history with a 64-yarder in Denver earlier this season. ... The last time these teams faced, Fox was not on the sidelines following a bye week health scare that led to heart surgery. Del Rio served as the interim head coach in Fox's place. ... The Broncos had the second-best third-down offense in the NFL during the regular season, converting on 46 percent of their attempts. ... The Broncos have three options among their punt returners: receivers Wes Welker and Eric Decker and specialist Trindon Holliday, though Holliday has had ball security issues this season.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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