It is Conference Championship weekend in the NFL and the New England Patriots are slated to take on the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon. So I decided to team up with Boston’s local site on FanSided called Chowder and Champions. Myself and Chowder and Champions editor Frank O’Laughlin each interviewed each other on certain aspects of the teams and what they need to do to win. Here are the five questions I asked and a special thanks to Frank for helping out.
Behind Enemy Lines: New England Patriots
Five Burning Questions:
Q: What will it take for the New England Patriots to stop the running game of the Denver Broncos? Last meeting, Knowshon Moreno rushed for a career-high 224 yards on 37 attempts. Have they made adjustments since then?
A: Without a doubt, it will require a team effort on the defensive side of the ball to stop Denver’s rushing attack. The physicality of the Broncos offensive line and the shiftiness Knowshon Moreno brings will surely poise a substantial challenge, but the New England defense has come a long way as a unit since the gashing Moreno inflicted back on November 29.
Rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have steadily developed since being thrust into play following the loss of Vince Wilfork. They won’t overpower anyone like Wilfork can, but the duo can hold their own, allowing second level players to fill the gaps and make the stops.
Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones do a solid job of setting the edge at the point of attack and are rarely caught out of position, thus putting them in a position to make plays on the ball carrier.
Though linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins will be the key component in shutting down the run. Hightower has been as stout as any linebacker in the NFL in recent weeks. Jamie Collins has emerged as a defensive catalyst, exhibiting the ability to tackle and tackle for loss. Expect these two to be around the football all game long.
Q: Can the Patriots get Peyton Manning and company off of the field on third-down with the weapons of Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker? The Pats allowed opponents to convert on 3rd down 43.4% percent of the time in the regular season, which was ranked 29th in the league.
A: Again, by no means will this be an easy task, but the Patriots are capable of shutting down Peyton Manning and company in third-down situations. Third-down is stat you can throw out of the window at this point, because New England’s defense came through against the Colts, holding them to just 6 conversions in the game.
If the Patriots can generate a sustained pass rush and force Manning to hurry through his progressions, their secondary, which boasts enough sufficient talent, should be able to get off the field on third-down.
Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan must all be on the same page, as they will be matching up with Denver’s weapons for the most part. Steven Gregory and Devin McCourty looked shaky against Andrew Luck. They most provide improved help over the top from their safety positions for success to be had.
Jamie Collins is the x-factor. Julius Thomas has come on strong of late and he will need to be shutdown at all costs. Collins has shown great range and the ability to play the football in the air. If he can keep up with Thomas, New England’s chances of not only making third-down stops, but winning will skyrocket.
Q: Given the success of the Patriots running game of late, do you think it will be an advantage heading into the game against the Broncos? Denver has been solid on stopping the run this year, ranked 8th in the NFL with just 101.6 yards allowed on the ground during the regular season. They recently held the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Divisional Round Game to just 65 rushes on 18 attempts.
A: Regardless of how well the Broncos play the run, the San Diego Chargers offensive line pales in comparison to that of the New England Patriots. Many view the Patriots as a passing team, thus their line must be exceptional at pass blocking, right? Wrong. They excel in run blocking.
New England’s stable of runners is far more punishing than the group San Diego possesses.
Nate Solder and Logan Mankins anchor the group. Solder is 6-foot-8 and checks in at 330+ pounds. He’s agile and can clear out opposing players with ease. Logan Mankins is arguably the best guard in the NFL. He salivates at the thought of hitting defenders. Dan Connolly is another relatively unknown player, yet he serves as an efficient blocker.
Once they start moving downhill, they’re very difficult to combat.
But their strong running game will serve as an advantage when it comes to the passing game. Denver must respect the run. If not they will be surely gashed. Therefore the advantage goes to Tom Brady. With extra defenders in the box, Brady should be able to throw over the middle and over the top. Also New England’s lethal play-action passing attack will be given the opportunity to get uncorked.
Q: With key injuries to Jarrod Mayo and Vince Wilfork on the defensive-side of the ball during the regular season, what player or player(s) need to step up come Sunday afternoon?
Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Alfozo Dennard and Aqib Talib must all play a key role if the Patriots hope to win on Sunday.
The Patriots are well aware of Denver’s versatile attack and the glamorous stats they’ve put up this year. Though New England’s defense is playing with a chip on their shoulder. They feel like they never get the respect that’s deserved and it showed last week against the Colts.
Granted Peyton Manning is not Andrew Luck, he still is susceptible to throwing a pick or two, especially in the face of pressure. The Patriots front seven is capable of getting after him and their secondary rarely fails to exploit a wayward pass.
Q: Can the New England Patriots win on the road? Despite blowing out the defending champion Baltimore Ravens in Week 16, the Pats have lost close games on the road to Cincinnati (13-6), New York Jets (30-27 OT), Carolina (24-20), and Miami (24-20) during the regular season. What will it take for Brady and company to come into Denver and defeat the Broncos?
A: The regular season is yesterday’s news. Bill Belichick and company has long forgotten about those losses, as the Patriots are not the same team now as they were then. Their victory against Baltimore gives the best representation of who they are right now. They are much better at controlling the football and managing the clock, both essential components to winning on the road.