Weakest Link

Which aspect of the Patriots defense is the bigger concern against the Broncos?

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    76%
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    24%

(Total votes: 8,329)

RUN DEFENSE
PASS DEFENSE

Pats must control ground game

Reiss By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com
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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick often makes the point that a defense can take away something from the opposing offense by devoting significant resources to it, but it comes down to a question of, At the expense of what else?

We saw a classic example of it in the Patriots' 34-31 victory over the Denver Broncos on Nov. 24, when they prioritized pass defense by playing all 90 of their snaps with either one or two extra defensive backs on the field.

What resulted was a 150-yard passing day for Peyton Manning ... and a 280-yard rushing day for Knowshon Moreno and Co.

It makes sense to think the Patriots will employ a similar plan in the AFC Championship Game, so here's the key: When lighter in the box, they need to play better run defense than they did Nov. 24 when they were consistently blown off the ball.

The emergence of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, who was still on the practice squad in that first meeting, is one reason to think things could be better for the Patriots this time around. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound Siliga has been tougher to move inside. Also, linebacker Jamie Collins' breakthrough couldn't have come at a more important time.

No defense is going to completely shut down Manning and all his pass-catching weapons. But it's reasonable to think the Patriots, while playing with extra defensive backs, will find a way to slow it down at times like they did Nov. 24.

That's why the bigger concern is whether the Patriots, with fewer resources in the box, can create enough resistance against the run.

Manning has too many weapons

Yates By Field Yates
ESPNBoston.com
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There are two major reasons to think the Patriots' pass defense is in better shape to hold its own against the Broncos than the run defense this Sunday: 1. Their personnel is better in the secondary than it is along the defensive line; 2. the Broncos already gashed New England once this season for 280 rushing yards.

And yet, entering the rematch, it's the pass defense that is the bigger area of concern. This isn't a lack of belief in the cornerbacks and safeties for the Patriots, a group that has been very good for much of the season; moreover, linebacker Jamie Collins will add a different dynamic to this pass defense.

But Peyton Manning and the Broncos' passing offense had a transcendent 2013 regular season, and unlike in the Week 12 matchup, Manning will have tight end Julius Thomas, a Pro Bowl pick, on the field.

Being without Thomas took away one of the Broncos' primary four weapons in the passing game, and part of their offensive success rests in the power of numbers.

A defense is eventually going to have choose which target to de-emphasize, and with Thomas back in the mix, that gives the Broncos a favorable matchup somewhere in the formation, depending on who the Patriots leave less covered (so to speak) than the other main receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker).

This isn't to say the Patriots' pass defense is incapable of partially neutralizing the Broncos' passing attack, but holding Manning to just 150 yards again (part of which was the result of the Broncos' reliance on the run) is a tall order for any defense.

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