For the Patriots, it’ll be all about taking advantage of positive man-to-man matchups, while the Broncos must focus on playing good complementary football and staying as physical as possible on defense.
That’s the feeling of one scout who has broken down film on both the Patriots and the Broncos, who will meet Saturday in the AFC divisional playoffs at Gillette Stadium. He was kind enough to open up his notebook and give us some points of emphasis for both sides this weekend. And while he acknowledged many aspects of the game plan for both teams would be similar to when they met in the regular season back on Dec. 18, there are a few new wrinkles to look for. (As per usual, we’ve listed the scout’s notes in italics, with our take underneath.)
The Denver defense needs to win on third down. This will go part and parcel with their offense trying to win time of possession, the complementary element of keeping Tom Brady off the field. The Broncos will need to run the football to a degree that they need to take control of the time of possession, which will play some “keep away” from the Patriots defense.
Do you remember how New England used to try and beat the Colts by keeping Peyton Manning off the field, running the ball and controlling the time of possession? The Broncos are going to try and take a page out of the Patriots’ old game plans and play keep away from Brady by trying to control the pace and the tempo of the game by running the ball with the league’s best running attack, featuring Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee. However, that will only work if Denver plays good complimentary football -- that is, if the Broncos’ defense can limit the New England offense early, force some well-timed three-and-outs and gain an early edge. With the Patriots’ recent run of slow starts, New England could be vulnerable if Denver can control the game early.
The Broncos have to slow down the middle of the field passing game: namely the tight ends and Wes Welker. If Pats are going to beat you, force them to outside the numbers with their perimeter wide receiver group. Look for Denver to try and get their hands on the tight ends and Welker -- free access will only accentuate their ability. To slow them down, they need to reroute and win versus these guys at the line of scrimmage. And you must pressure on the passer. Give Tom Brady time, he’ll find the open wide receiver.
Look for Denver to try and get as physical as possible all over the field. First, when teams have been able to try and get their hands on Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez off the line and try and re-route them, they’ve had some success. (As our scout suggests, if Denver allows free access down the field for Welker and the two tight ends, it will flat-out kill the Broncos.) Look for the Patriots to try and get Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez in situations where it’ll be tough to jam them off the line -- have them in motion, or lined up in the backfield (particularly in the case of the two tight ends). Second, one of the biggest reasons behind New England’s last three playoff losses has been because teams have been successful in getting consistent pressure on Brady with a minimum of rushers. Those teams (New York Giants, Baltimore and the New York Jets) have all gotten very physical with Brady, and hit him steadily. (The Patriots have allowed a total of 19 quarterback hits in those games -- seven against the Jets, three against the Ravens and nine against the Giants.) As we saw in the first game between the Patriots and Broncos on Dec. 18, look for New England to try and counteract some of that pressure by utilizing Gronkowski more as a blocker to try and give some support. If Brady can stay clean and upright on Saturday, it’ll go a long way toward a New England win.
Matchup football is going to be big. The Patriots understand this element as well as anyone in the NFL. Exploit those matchups.
Offensively, New England will look to exploit mismatches, particularly in the passing game, where targets like Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez have been matchup nightmares for opposing defenses all season long. While the Broncos were able to contain Welker in the first matchup and Gronkowski was used more as a blocker, Brady (who went 23-for-34 for 320 yards and two touchdowns) was able to exploit a mismatch on Hernandez to the tune of nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. New England was also able to find some positive matchups in the running game, particularly involving rookie Stevan Ridley, who had 11 carries for 65 yards the first time these two teams met during the regular season.
If you’re Denver, you want to force field goals over touchdowns. New England is going to get their yards, but the ability to win in the red zone will be key to keeping it tight. Denver has to eliminate the turnovers: that really tilted the game the last time these two teams played. You can’t do that and expect to beat Tom Brady.
The first time these two teams met back in December, the Patriots won two key battles: they were 4-for-6 in the red zone (three runs and one pass got them four touchdowns), and they won the turnover battle, finishing +3 in the takeaway department. Not all turnovers are created equal, and New England has done a very good job as of late when it comes to forcing well-timed turnovers. On Dec. 18, those three takeaways in the second quarter quickly changed momentum in New England’s favor. The Patriots were +17 over the course of the regular season in takeaways, the best total in the AFC. The Broncos were -12. Something to look for on Saturday night.
The Patriots will aim to score like gangbusters so that the Denver offense will become a one-dimensional pass effort. That’s not what the Broncos want.
In their first meeting this season, New England struggled early against the Broncos, falling behind 16-7. The Patriots quickly mounted a comeback and dominated down the stretch, but slow starts have remained a problem for New England over the second half of the season. The Patriots have shown themselves to be a mentally tough team this season -- they’ve come from behind in nine of their 13 wins during the regular season, overcoming an average deficit of 8.4 points in those victories. But with the narrow margin for error in the postseason, they can’t afford to put themselves in a similar hole this time around. For the Patriots, the ideal scenario would be to get to control the tempo early, gain a double-digit lead and force the Broncos to become a one-dimensional team, not unlike what they were able to do in their first meeting.