Here are the ten matchups we’ll be keeping an eye on in Saturday’s divisional playoff contest between the Patriots and Broncos:
Devin McCourty against Demaryius Thomas: This probably won’t be the traditional cornerback/wide receiver matchup, because there’s the very real likelihood that McCourty will spend much of his time working at safety. But even then, it’ll be McCourty who will be helping defend Thomas, playing over the top and providing support so the receiver cannot beat New England deep (as he did last week against the Steelers). Thomas has really come on strong over the last month, and McCourty will either be working against him in man coverage or keeping an eye on him as a safety. Either way, he’ll play a big role in trying to slow down Denver’s big play threat.
Brandon Spikes against Tim Tebow: He wasn’t in the lineup for the first Patriots-Broncos matchup because of a knee injury, but appears Spikes is ready to roll this time around. In the second half of the first game, the Patriots utilized more man-to-man coverage in the passing game and had a defender stake out the middle ground underneath to cut off quick in-cuts and defend against Tebow if he decided to take off. Chances are that Spikes could be in that role this time around.
Mark Anderson against Ryan Clady: The situational pass-rusher stepped up nicely back in December against the Broncos, coming away with a team-high five quarterback pressures and two quarterback sacks in the win over Denver. His speed was too much for Clady to handle, and he came away with a key turnover. He’s still not a three-down defender in New England’s system, but remains one of the Patriots’ best pass rushers (Rob Ninkovich is the other), and if Tebow wants time to try and deliver a deep ball to Thomas or any other receiver, he’ll have to rely on Clady keeping Anderson out of the backfield.
(One other point on this: Since Andre Carter went down in that December game against the Broncos -- eventually landing on injured reserve -- the Patriots have resorted to blitzing more in attempts to try and dial up the pressure, and might do the same thing Saturday they did in December. In that game, according to Pro Football Focus, New England blitzed Tebow on 11 of his 32 dropbacks, or 34 percent. It was the fourth-highest percentage for the Patriots all season, and considering they had blitzed on 22 percent of their snaps heading into that game, a little surprising. Since Carter has gone down, the Patriots have blitzed more often. Entering the Denver game, New England was blitzing at a rate of 22 percent. Over the final three games, they blitzed at an average of 31 percent.)
Jerod Mayo against Willis McGahee: Just as the absence of Spikes and Chung took its toll the last time these two teams met for New England, the fact that Willie McGahee was in and out of the first matchup because of a hamstring injury slowed the Denver offense. The loss of McGahee robbed the Broncos of one of their best offensive options, but at this point, he figures to be OK to go this time around. While it will take a complete team effort to slow down the Denver running game, it will be on Mayo’s shoulders to read and react and make sure McGahee doesn’t get going.
Josh McDaniels against the Broncos: Denver has said up and down all week that the fact that their former head coach will be on the opposing sideline (or in the booth, or wherever...) on Saturday night won’t matter. But in a candid moment on his conference call with the New England media this week, Tebow admitted that there would likely be some overlap when you’re talking about audibles and line calls, as well as a few other things. It will be interesting to see how all that plays out.
Stevan Ridley against Brodrick Bunkley: The Patriots have settled into a fairly reliable running back rotation over the last month or so, with Ridley doing the bulk of the work between the 20s, BenJarvus Green-Ellis serving as the hammer on the goal line, and Danny Woodhead as the third-down, change up option out of the backfield. Ridley has run very well as of late (he’s had 65, 64 and 81 yards on the ground in the final three regular season games, and averaged more than five yards a carry through that stretch), putting up 65 yards on 11 carries for an impressive 5.9 yards per carry on Dec. 18 against the Broncos. Bunkley is Denver’s leading defender against the run (Pro Football Focus has him at +29.8 when it comes to run defense this season), and will be charged with stopping Ridley at the point of attack.
Tom Brady against the Denver pass defense: The Patriots’ quarterback has been at the center of the last three playoff losses for New England, as on each occasion, the opponents would get consistent pressure with four rushers and drop seven into coverage, cutting off the passing lanes and making it difficult for the Patriots’ offense to get started. While Miller and Dumervil are undeniable studs when it comes to rushing the passer, it remains debatable how much pressure the rest of Denver’s front seven can generate. Whatever happens, the Broncos probably won’t blitz all that often -- in the December matchup, Denver blitzed 11 times, and while the Broncos caught Brady twice with sacks, the quarterback was 7-for-9 for 161 yards (an average of 17.9 yards per attempt) when he was blitzed, according to Pro Football Focus.
(One thing worth mentioning here: When those teams were able to generate rush with four, the logical move would have been to try and run the ball with so many defensive backs on the field. For whatever reason, the Patriots were unable to generate an effective running game last postseason when the Jets did it. The guess here is that if the Broncos try and do the same thing, New England will try and run the ball with more frequency than it has in its three previous playoff losses.)
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski against the Denver linebackers/secondary: The Broncos did a nice job of bottling up Welker (he had four catches for 41 yards, his second-lowest output of the season), and, to some extent, Gronkowski (although the big tight end spent a considerable amount of time as a blocker as opposed to a pass catcher). In that one, the breakout star was Hernandez, who had nine catches for 129 yards (both season highs to that point for him) and a touchdown. It appears to be another case of pick your poison for the Broncos, who would probably gladly take stopping two of the Patriots three primary receivers, while taking their chances that the third will either be ineffective, or limited with his production.
New England’s offensive line against Von Miller: Unlike Dumervil, the Broncos do some shuffling with Miller, trying to exploit some potential soft spots on the offensive line. Although he’s usually coming from the outside, Denver has moved him inside on occasion this season, which could mean New England’s interior linemen are in for a handful trying to keep Miller out of New England’s backfield. Miller was held in check in the first meeting between the two teams: according to Pro Football Focus, he was held without a sack, QB hit or pressure for the first time in his career as he struggled with a cast on his right hand. If the Patriots’ offensive line pitches a shutout against Miller again, they should give Brady more than enough time to pick apart the Denver pass defense. Keep an eye on the pregame inactives -- right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and left guard Logan Mankins were back at practice this week, but both were listed as questionable on the Friday injury report. You would think that both will play (especially Mankins, who remains one of the toughest players in recent franchise history), but depending on their injuries, it’s debatable how many quality snaps you could get out of both of them.
Wes Welker against Chris Harris, Jr.: This is going to be one of the better matchups to watch on Saturday. As previously mentioned, Harris and the Broncos were able to keep Welker in check, rendering him a nonfactor. As an AFC scout told us earlier in the week, look for the Broncos to try and get as physical as possible with the Patriots’ pass catchers, jamming them off the line and trying to get them out of their routes as early as possible. To counter that, New England will try and get those pass catchers in fluid, unblockable situations off the line -- namely, either have them line up in the backfield (Hernandez and Gronkowski) or bring them in motion (Welker). Either way, they want to make sure the Denver defenders don’t get the chance to be too handsy off the line.