We all know who’s playing quarterback, so why does the focus remain on who can run the ball better Sunday? Probably because it will dictate time of possession, the turnover battle, and, most importantly, which quarterback can get most comfortable against the opposing defense.
When the Patriots and Broncos met in Foxborough back in November, the story was all about New England’s stunning second half comeback, as it should have been. However, what went largely unnoticed is how Denver took its foot off the pedal, again, and went conservative for about 85% of the half and that played a huge role in their demise.
What that half denied football fans everywhere was answer to the most important question looming over Sunday’s game, can the Patriots defense sustain the Broncos offense for a full 60 minutes?
There will be no break pedal this time around, as San Diego learned last week, and that’s why the question that went unanswered then is so pertinent now.
Let’s look at how the Patriots defense matches up position by position:
Defensive line: Rob Ninkovich (DE), Chandler Jones (DE), Sealver Siliga (DT), Chris Jones (DT), Isaac Sopoaga (DT), Andre Carter (DE)
I still don’t know if this group can get to Peyton Manning consistently enough to disrupt him and directly change the outcome of the game. Ninkovich has a knack for making plays and Jones is this game’s best pass rusher. New England has that going for them. What they’re missing is the big man in the middle, Vince Wilfork, and if he were healthy this would be a whole different story. Siliga has been serviceable down the stretch, but Patriots fans must remember how Knowshon Moreno devoured the interior D-Line in November and that must leave them uncomfortable. As I wrote yesterday, if he has a game anywhere close to the one two months ago, Denver will win the game.
On the flip side, Denver’s D-Line will have more than a challenge trying to contain New England’s newfound running attack, spearheaded by LeGarrette Blount. Like many of the match-ups heading into Sunday, this one may be too close to call.
Linebackers: Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher, Dont’a Hightower
No Jerod Mayo, no Brandon Spikes definitely hurts this unit, but Pats fans had to like what they saw Jamie Collins do last week against Indy. It was enough to earn him a rise on the depth chart and should have Bronco fans concerned that this isn’t as big of a mismatch as they once thought. Nonetheless, the Broncos’ best remaining defensive player, after the loss of Chris Harris Jr., is Danny Trevathan, who gives them the slight edge here.
Cornerbacks: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan
As much as people want to talk about the respective rushing attacks, this game will be won by New England’s secondary if they can contain Denver’s record-setting aerial attack. If Talib plays the game of his career, which he is very capable of doing, then he could emerge as game MVP. It’s that big of a role for him. Dennard looked sluggish in the previous match-up, and that probably has Bill Belichick considering his option, starting Arrington or Ryan. Although they may switch before or during the game, this unit does have an advantage against a Denver cornerback crew that is old and without its best player (see: Chris Harris).
Safeties: Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson
Julius Thomas posses a threat that this unit hasn’t seen, and they know it. Thomas will more than likely be the player who Belichick focuses on stopping, which means Manning will have to adjust and throw to second options such a Jacob Tamme and Andre Caldwell when they’re on the field. If the focus isn’t on Thomas, and he comes up with a big day, then that could prove to be yet another difference. Bronco fans shouldn’t rest on this unit, but as far as offensive vs. defensive matchup is concerned, they do have an advantage. With that said, turning it over the other way. Denver’s safety play has been far from stellar and Brady will look to abuse the middle of the field. If he’s successful, this could be a who can score the most points type of battle.
Tune in tomorrow for special teams coverage and the game pick.