Lion’s Den: AFC Championship Preview

Two AFC heavyweights square off

Two AFC heavyweights square off

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” Yes, the Lion is quoting one of the most famous pregame speeches of all time, by Henry V.  (I wonder how many times the English ran the WR bubble screen?) Look, before you make fun of me, I need the warrior king’s inspiration to bring my “A” game to this preview. I have said almost everything there is to say about these final four teams that hasn’t already been said by me and/or beat to death by the national media. I have to dig deep this week. You know who else could use a good pregame speech? The teams that are playing this Sunday could. These games are going to be as wild as the Battle of Agincourt. Here is some free advice. Finish your chores early Sunday Morning. Cancel whatever plans you have Sunday afternoon, lock yourself in a room safe from all distractions, and watch the carnage unfold. The Lion is here to breakdown the matchups that will decide the outcomes. I’m doing it all for you, the few, the lucky few, the band of jerks who read this website. Without further ado, let’s charge in to the analysis.

AFC Championship Game, 3:00 PM on CBS

New England at Denver -4.5: These two QBs have a history of battles against each other that is almost as contentious as the English and French. The media is going to play up the QB battle all week long. I told you last week when referring to the Luck v. Brady that I thought the media attention on the QBs was overblown, that both QB’s would play well, and that other matchups would effect the outcome. I was only partially right. Other matchups did effect the outcome, (LeGarett Blount, this year’s Marshawn Lynch), but Luck did not do a very good job of protecting the ball. Kudos to Belichek for watching the Chiefs back up running backs run all over the Colts before Andy Reid abandoned the run in the second half, and deciding to take advantage of that weakness (except, you know, for the whole game since Belechick prefers to actually win).  Meanwhile, Denver had one of those Manning playoff games that make their fan’s assholes pucker. However, while the world of sports talk radio and twitter is saying that Manning almost choked that one away, he actually played pretty well down the stretch. San Diego’s offense and special teams made that one close.  In case you forgot, the last time these two teams played was on a Sunday night in Foxboro, with Denver blowing a 24-0 lead to lose 34-31. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the matchups that will determine this game. (As you will notice, while I am keeping the matchup headings generically broad, I am discussing the individual matchups in detail to keep the same form of article).

Patriots OL v. Denver DL: I talked last week about how the Patriots offensive line was very good, particularly the left side, and went on and on about pass protection. As I predicted, they won the battle with the Colts, especially in run blocking. As far as run blocking is concerned, Denver’s DL is much better statistically than Indianapolis, although the stats are deceiving. The Broncos rush defense ranks 8th in yards allowed and 7th in yards per game allowed. Those stats are a little off because teams fall behind against them because of their record setting offense, forcing them to abandon the run. (You know what I am going to say here about things being related). I looked, and it turns out I was right that teams don’t run the ball that often against the Broncos, only 7 teams had to defend fewer rush attempts. I think a more telling statistic for Denver’s defense is yards allowed per carry. Here, Denver is closer to the middle of the road in the NFL, allowing just less than 4 yards per attempt. Another telling statistic is the number of runs allowed of 20+ yards. Only 10 teams have given up more long runs of 20 or more than Denver. Yuck. On the bright side for Denver, they were significantly better than the Colts in every rushing statistic.  Looking for a reason the Pats have decided to become a running team? They have gone from tight ends that can catch, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to block-first guys, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan. Coach Belichek is amazing at using his players’ strengths and exploiting opponents weaknesses. Before we reach a verdict on this matchup we need to consider pass blocking.  When it comes to rushing the passer, the Broncos do not have one elite sack master going for them like the Colts do with Mathis, (Von Miller is out) but as a team the Broncos have one less sack during the regular season than Indy. The other good news is that Denver has improved steadily on defense the last few weeks. The most improvement has come from the young DL, particularly nose tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, First-round draft pick Sylvester Williams, and second-year defensive tackle Malik Jackson. Believe it or not, they have held their last 3 opponents to under 260 total yards combined.  Last week they really got after Rivers, and came up with big sacks when needed, especially in the first half. They held Rivers to 1 yard passing in the first half and only gave up 65 yards rushing the whole game.  Perhaps the matchup to watch is DE Shaun Phillips matched up against Marcus Cannon. I wrote last week about Cannon being the weak link in pass protection at RT, and LT Nate Solder being just about unbeatable on the other side. Well, Phillips had 2 sacks last week against the Chargers, both coming from the right side. I should also note that Von Miller actually beat Nate Solder back in week 12 for sacks, but again, he will not be playing this Sunday.  Despite my early inclinations, this matchup is not the clear Pats advantage I thought it was. The reason this could end up being the most important matchup in the game is because San Diego has now shown the whole league the blueprint for beating the Broncos. You need to run the ball, control the clock, and have long extended drives to keep Manning on the bench. The Patriots obviously know this, and you could argue they were essentially practicing for Denver last week by running the ball on the Colts. The running aspect of this matchup is closer than it looks, but when you figure in pass protection, I still have to give the nod to NE.  Slight Advantage Pats

Denver WR v. Pats DB: There isn’t a whole lot I need to say here. Even in a game where they knew the Colts had to pass, the Pats gave up 331 yards in the air to TY Hilton, Colby Fleener and a bunch of stiffs. You may have heard that Denver’s passing offense set some records this year.  I have said previously that Aqib Talib is the guy NE uses to shut down the other team’s number 1. (Even though last week Hilton put up over 100 yards on him). The problem is Denver’s WR are so deep. Last time they squared off, Demaryius Thomas caught four of the nine passes thrown to him for 41 yards and the game-tying touchdown. Assuming Talib can replicate that effort (I consider that a win), who is going to cover Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas? I am looking at you, defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington. Everybody is going to make a big deal out of Wes Welker playing against his own team and finally being healthy, but I think Decker and Thomas will affect the game more. I should add that Thomas did not play in previous matchup between the two teams, forcing Manning to throw to Jacob Tamme as his TE. While the offense put up 31 points against the Pats without him, Thomas is exponentially better at TE. His presence puts Belichek in a dilemma. If he chooses to put LBs Jamie Collins or Dont’a Hightower on him, it’s a clear mismatch in favor of Thomas.  (Even though Hightower has been playing inspired football as of late, he is banged up this week, and listed as questionable). If he chooses to cover him with a safety, Devin McCourty or Steve Gregory, that is one less DB to help cover Decker or Welker in the slot. Pick your poison.  Clear Advantage Denver.

Denver OL v. Pats DL: This is another matchup that I fear is lopsided. I said last week that the Colts should try to take advantage of the decimated New England front 7 by running the ball. I listed all the guys the Pats have out and it is just amazing how thin they are, especially up the middle without Wilfork and Spikes. Unfortunately for the Colts, they really couldn’t get their ground game going because they were behind due to turnovers. This is another area where the Broncos are significantly better than the Colts were. The Broncos absolutely dominated the Patriots on the ground back in week 12. Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards on 37 carries, an average of 6.1 yards. What is wild is that Moreno put up those numbers without a long run. Say what you want about Moreno, (Shady McCoy says he sucks), Knowshon is not exactly an explosive runner. Let’s call him patient. Anyway, I watched this game, and Moreno just gutted the Pats by running up the middle behind the Guard-Center-Guard interior of the OL, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, and Louis Vasquez from left to right. And that was with their best run stopping LB Brandon Spikes. They are without him this Sunday. What Denver’s OL excels at is keeping their feet moving in order to stay with their blocks. The reason this matters is that even if they are unable to push a defender where they want, they remain engaged, allowing for a patient running back with good vision to cut back off the OL’s butts. For you non OL addicts, what it sort of looks like is a moving pick in basketball.  This seal and cutback combo doesn’t necessarily open huge running lanes, but it gets running backs just enough space to get a few yards every time. Moreno is nothing if not patient. There are plenty of pieces on Zone Blocking to read if you are so inclined. I find it fitting that they use it in Denver even after Shanny and Elway are gone. Anyway, the Pats couldn’t stop this scheme last time; really the only thing that stopped the run was Moreno himself. He tweaked an ankle and was hobbled in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Broncos had benched 2nd round JFFL draft bust Montee Ball for fumbling, and preferred an ineffective but non fumbling Moreno in overtime. Ball appears to be out of the doghouse for this week. If Denver can dominate inside like last time, this game is an easy win for them. If the Lion knows this, Bill Belichek knows this, and sure enough he is working on defending this very thing.  Of course, run blocking is only half the battle. I don’t see part of the matchup going any better for New England. Side note: can you think of any two QBs in the NFL that pout and whine like bigger pussies than Brady and Manning when sacked? I can’t. The announcers attribute it to them being great competitors, but the Lion thinks they are just a little soft.  There is nothing I enjoy more than watching those two cry after a sack. If you get to either, they lose it. Should somebody get to them here, it will win the game for their team. Honestly though, I don’t see either side doing it. The most impressive stat I have seen from Denver’s offensive line is that despite setting all kinds of passing records, Denver’s OL has given up the FEWEST sacks of any team in the NFL. Part of this is great blocking, but you also have to give Peyton Manning credit here too. You aren’t going to beat him with a blitz because he recognizes it and gets rid of the ball better than anybody else. The only way you sack him is if somebody makes a mistake in pass protection up the middle, (it happens but you can’t expect it) or really gets beat off the edge very badly. I don’t see any of the Pats doing that.  Advantage Denver

Pats WR v. Denver DBs: This is the matchup the Patriots absolutely must win to have a chance in this game. The last time these two teams played, the Pats had Gronk. He had a very Gronk like game, 7 catches for 90 yards. He was a threat in the red zone and over the middle on 3rd down. He is obviously missing Sunday. Complementary WRs Aaron Dobson and Kembrell Thompkins are also banged up. This leaves Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. That’s not totally true; they also have Shane Vereen out of the backfield. Vereen absolutely has to have a big game here for New England. A very underrated route runner, Vereen fills the Kevin Faulk roll in the Pats offense. For Pats haters like me, one of the most annoying things to watch in the NFL in the 00’s was Faulk making a catch picking up a first down on 3rd and 4. The Pats are excellent at running borderline illegal pick plays for their rbs. What they do is have their WRs run slants and other clearing routes across the middle of the field. This of course creates space for Faulk, now Vereen to run an angle route out of the backfield against an overmatched man defender or a distracted linebacker in zone coverage. He is going to win against the mid level Denver LB corps, Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving. Woodyard actually is better than I thought, kudos to Dazzle to pointing him out to me. Still, I like Vereen in this matchup. If I were the Broncos, I would consider having a safety, Duke Ihenacho or pal of the Lion Mike Adams to key Vereen when he is in the game. Even that might not work though, Vereen is that good. What Amendola and Edelman lack in big play ability, they make up for with quickness and route running. They haven’t put up exceptional numbers, but they can get first downs. That is exactly what the Pats need to do in order to keep Manning off the field. The last time these two teams went at it, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie left the game in the first half and did not return. He is the Broncos best CB, and he will be back. Also back is Champ Bailey, although he was used way less often than I thought last week, and doesn’t look to be 100%. Maybe he is just old. The Broncos will need his best effort because their other starting CB during the season, Chris Harris, tore his ACL last week and is done for the year. If you watched last week’s Denver v. SD, game, you noticed the moment that Harris left the game, Keneen Allen came alive, torching back up Quentin Jammer. Look for Brady to pick on him this week. Jammer also is old, but was never as skilled of a cover guy as Bailey was. The Lion finds it amusing that Jammer’s strength is using his size and long arms to get physical at the line of scrimmage to throw off timing routes. It’s like having a Boxer named Jabber, or a basketball player named Jumper. Anyway, in theory, it would seem like Jammer would be a good matchup for the Pats timing based passing game, but Jammer is susceptible to double moves and play action. If I were a coach, I would run play action and double moves on Jammer all day. Belichek is smarter than me so, look for the Pats to exploit this. By the way, if you are interested in the type of X and O stuff I discuss on this blog, check out NFL Network’s TV show called Playbook. The Lion recommends it. One more wrinkle to add here, The Broncos picked up ex-Patriot DB Marquice Cole this week to take the Harris roster spot. I went into the whole espionage thing last week, and of course that is a factor again, but I don’t feel like writing about it again. Read last week’s column for a discussion, or this article for Denver’s take on it.  Despite the possible advantage Cole brings, I still think I have to give this to the Pats. Advantage Pats.

Denver Special Teams v. NE Special Teams. Ok we are all squared up here. It occurred to the Lion that we haven’t talked about a very important aspect of football in these whole playoffs. Look, the Lion hates kickers, but he can’t pretend that Special Teams play does not have a huge impact on games, especially close games in the playoffs. It has affected every NFC game so far and allowed San Diego a chance to get back into their game with Denver last week. You may remember the first time these two teams played; Denver muffed a punt setting up the Patriots win. The Patriots have problems with the punt game this week. Rookie Ryan Allen injured himself last week on a bone head play where he tried to field a snap over his head. FG kicker Stephen Gostkowski filled in. I don’t know what Allen’s status is, or what the Patriots will do this week for a punter, but you have to think that isn’t good. On the flip side, Denver’s kickoff coverage is atrocious. They allow the most in the league in kickoff returns. New England is 2nd best in the league in covering kicks. As far as return games go, Denver is more likely to break a long one with Trindon Holiday. Both Prater and Gostkowski are pretty good kickers, but Prater missed 2 FGs last week. What does this mean? Nothing. Everything. I have no idea. I hate kickers. This was a bad idea. Advantage Even.

Bonus category:  Players v. Altitude and Weather:  This is better. I honestly think this will be a factor in the game. First off, Denver obviously has a little bit of an advantage because they are used to it. This becomes more pronounced when you consider that due to injuries the Patriots are very thin at a lot of positions. Again, if I was coaching Denver, I would take advantage of this and run the crap out of Moreno and Ball. Jumping back to special teams, Prater and the kickoff coverage liability is negated by the fact that the ball goes out of the end zone in Denver. Oh one more thing, the weather in Denver is supposed to be calm and in the 50’s. So much for Brady’s advantage in cold weather.  Slight Advantage Denver

Prediction: This is an epic matchup, with Belichek and Brady going to Denver to torture their favorite victim, Petyon Manning. I hate betting against the Pats in the playoffs because they always find a way to win. I can’t bet on them this year though. They are too depleted with injuries to go win in Denver, the place where Brady has always struggled throughout his career. The Broncos are the only team that Brady has a losing record against, and two of his wins were against Tebow. After watching the tape of the first game, Denver is just the better team. They lost in overtime because they turned the ball over way too many times and gave Brady way to many chances at home. In looking at this preview, I keep finding myself saying things like, New England HAS to do x in order for them to win. Knowing Brady and Belichek, do I think they will do everything they HAVE to do? Yes. Still, I don’t think even if they do all of those things that a win is guaranteed. So even though the line is all over the place because Vegas doesn’t know what to do, if I use this 4.5 number, (Bovada’s number at the time of writing this article), I take the home team. BRONCOS -4.5

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