Thursday, January 16, 2014
AFC Championship: Matchups to watch
By John Parolin
USA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Peyton Manning will get the headlines leading up to Sunday’s AFC Championship game, but in the Week 12 meeting between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, the teams combined for 396 rushing yards.
Both the Patriots and Broncos rushing games will be important in Sunday's AFC Championship.
That first meeting also went to overtime, a reflection of how narrow the gap is between the Broncos and the Patriots.
Down 24 points at halftime, Brady led his team back with three second-half touchdown passes before Manning forced overtime with an 11-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas. A muffed punt was the difference in the game, setting up a 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal that capped the comeback.
Here are four matchups that will stamp a ticket to the Super Bowl.
Patriots Rushing Game vs Terrance Knighton
The Patriots have been rush-heavy in their last three games, with LeGarrette Blount tripling his inside-the-tackle rushes per game average.
Blount is averaging 130 rush yards per game inside the tackles since the start of Week 16, which is not only more than any other player, but also more than 28 of 31 other teams.
Denver’s Terrance Knighton has been very effective this year as a run-stopping defensive tackle.
Knighton has been on the field for 70 percent of first and second-down rushing attempts the Broncos have faced this season, and the Broncos have allowed 3.5 yards per rush on those plays. That would rank second in the league on first or second down. When Knighton is off the field, Denver’s 5.2 yards per rush would rank as the second worst.
Broncos running backs vs Patriots unloaded box
New England practically begged the Broncos to run the football in Week 12. Denver had 47 rushes against six or fewer defenders in the box, 14 more than any other team had in a game in the last six years.
The Broncos rushed for 281 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per rush in Week 12 against that “unloaded” front.
New England’s defensive tackles last Saturday were Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga - none of whom were drafted or had played a game before 2012.
Broncos secondary vs Patriots receivers
Denver has allowed a 36.9 QBR in the regular season and a 61.6 QBR in the playoffs since start of 2012, and failed to hold a lead in both Week 12 vs. New England and in last year’s playoff loss to the Ravens.
Improved secondary play may be a tall order after Chris Harris was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL, especially after Philip Rivers went 11 of 15 for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter with Quentin Jammer in for Harris.
The Broncos have been terrible this year against slot receivers, which is basically almost all of the wideout options that Brady has left. Champ Bailey has been Denver’s slot cornerback for the last three weeks, but may be pressed into perimeter action with Harris’ injury.