New England Patriots (13-4 SU, 8-7-2 ATS) vs. Denver Broncos (13-4 SU, 8-7-2 ATS)
Date/Time:Sunday, January 24th, 3:05 PM EST
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium
By Mike M., NFL Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: NE-3 / DEN+3
Over/Under Total: 44
Familiar foes will face off in game one of Conference Championship Sunday when the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots battle it out at Mile High Stadium for the AFC crown. The two teams have played each other seven times over the past five seasons, with the Patriots going 5-2 over that span but the Broncos having won two of the last three.
The Patriots advanced to the AFC title game after beating the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 last Saturday in Foxboro. New England scored a touchdown on their opening drive and held on to the lead for the remainder of the game, thanks in large part to a strong all around performance on both sides of the ball, but also aided toward the end by the helpful benefit of playing Andy Reid in the playoffs. Reid has developed a strong reputation, not only for looking like a cross between Wilford Brimley and a walrus, but more so because as good as he is in the regular season, his coaching IQ seems to plummet once the postseason starts. The Patriots benefited from this in Super Bowl 39 when they were beating Reid and the Eagles by two scores in the fourth quarter and Philly decided that it was the best time to break out a needlessly and easily preventable long, time consuming drive that left little to no time for any sort of a comeback and Reidís Chiefs pulled that same magical strategy in Saturdayís loss to New England, as they repeatedly squandered valuable seconds off the clock as they were driving to cut the Patriots 27-13 fourth quarter lead in hopes of scoring and getting the ball back. All this just further adds substance to the theory that Andy Reid is essentially the huskier-mustachioed current day version of Marty Schottenheimer.
Last weekendís win against the Chiefs improved Tom Bradyís postseason record to 22-8, and he now has more playoff victories than 23 teams in the NFL, including his opponent this week the Denver Broncos. He leads all quarterbacks in postseason NFL history in passing touchdowns, passing yards, completions and Sundayís game against Denver will not only set the NFL record for the most postseason game appearances (31), but will more impressively be his tenth trip to the AFC Championship game in his first fifteen years as a starting quarterback in the league. And while the Broncos may be the only team that Brady has a career losing record against (5-6), he has gone 5-2 against them since 2011 while throwing for twenty touchdowns compared to just two interceptions (and those two interceptions were from a 2011 playoff that the Patriots won 45-10 with Brady throwing for six touchdowns and a 43-21 regular season victory last year in which he tossed four scores).
The return of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman from injury made an enormous impact for Brady and New England offense, as both were focal points of a pass heavy game plan that saw the team go to the air on its first fourteen plays from scrimmage and 75% of its total offensive plays during the game (42 of 56). Gronkowski played all but one offensive snap that didnít involve Tom Brady taking a knee during Saturdayís game and ended up with seven catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns, which was Gronkís fourth postseason game in a row with a score and also helped him set the NFL tight end record for career playoff touchdowns with what is now nine in his young career. The return of Edelman was just as important, not just because of his ten catches on a team high sixteen targets for 100 yards receiving, but more so for how much his presence on the offense opens up their play calling and allows the team to spread opposing defenses, which was clearly evident last week against KC as the Patriots offense had three wide receivers on the field for 47 of their first 50 offensive plays. New England is now 10-0 on the season when Edelman plays, and just 2-3 when he doesnít, showing just how critical his health and well being is to the success of the Patriots.
While the skill position players got the highlights and notoriety for New England, the play of their offensive line can not be overlooked. For what has been an inconsistent unit all year they saved their best for the playoffs and were a big part of the reason why Brady and the offense were able to find success. They allowed their quarterback to be pressured only four times all game and didnít allow a sack to a Kansas City defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in said category during the regular season. The line will certainly need to continue that play this week against Denver and their dominating defense that ranked first in the NFL regular season in sacks and total defense and was the only team to average under 200 yards passing allowed per game.
The Broncos defense didnít play their best football of the season in last weekís 23-16 win over Pittsburgh, letting up 339 yards to a hobbled-shoulder Ben Roethlisberger who was playing without his most reliable target and the teamís best player, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who missed the game thanks to a concussion suffered against the Bengals in their Wild Card matchup the week previous. The Denver D came up big in the fourth when it mattered most though, forcing Steeler running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to fumble as Pittsburgh was driving to score and add to their lead. Instead the Broncos got a giant boost in momentum, and the team got crucial points off the turnover as they scored a touchdown with just three minutes left to propel them to the victory.
One major point of concern for the defense though is the health of cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was limited throughout the game due to a shoulder injury and isnít expected to be anywhere close to 100% against the Patriots on Sunday. His replacement Bradley Roby played well in his absence, and was also the player who caused the Toussaint fumble to set up the game winning score, but both will be surely tested against a suddenly healthy Patriots offense that is far different from the one they beat back in November. In the previous game New England was missing Edelman and Amendola and playing with a makeshift group of receivers and because of this Denver was able to run a lot of man-to-man single coverage on defense, which freed up Bronco defensive lineman Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller to wreck havoc on the Patriots and Tom Brady, who was pressured all game, being sacked three times and limited to just two 3rd down conversions on thirteen attempts. The success of Wolfe and Miller this season has usually translated into wins for Denver, as the team is 7-0 in games that Wolfe has at least four tackles and 7-2 in games that Miller records a sack.
While the Broncos defense held up their end against Pittsburgh, the offense looked sluggish through most of the game until the final game winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, which was their first time in the end zone in 23 straight playoff possessions.. While itís clear that age and injuries have caught up Peyton Manning, his receivers certainly didnít help the cause by dropping an estimated seven passes against Pittsburgh and will need to play significantly better against a Patriots defensive backfield led by that is playing better football than they have all season, except for the frequent lapses of concentration and judgment by starting cornerback Logan Ryan.
The biggest key for Denverís offensive success will be how well they run the ball against New England. They found much success in their regular season win against the Patriots on the ground, rushing for 179 yards, which is the most the Patriots gave up in a game all season. Ronnie Hillman ran for 59 yards and a first half touchdown, but it was C.J Anderson who was the star of the game, rushing 15 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winning 48 yards run and score in overtime. As a team the Broncos have averaged just 88.3 yards per game with Manning as the starter, while 134.9 per in the seven games that Brock Osweiller was at the helm, which is quite a large difference even taking into consideration the fact that they were running more early on to keep some of the pressure of Osweiller due to his inexperience. After a slow start to the season, Anderson has seemed to take over what can be considered a lead back role in Denver, and if he can add to the success he had against the Patriots previously, it would go a long way to taking some of the pressure off a declining Manning who has just a 4-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio since the beginning of October and hasnít actually thrown for a touchdown since early November.
The Broncos may be just 2-5 in their last seven games against the Patriots, but they are also 5-1 in their last six games against New England in Denver and an incredible 17-3 in their last twenty when hosting them. And in terms of the beaten-into-the-ground Brady vs. Manning storyline, the home quarterback is 5-1 in their last six matchups, including 4-0 in the playoffs. All that being said, itís difficult to go against New England this week. They are completely different team than the one that below a 14 point, fourth quarter lead to Denver back in November, a game in which the offense was so depleted thanks to the injuries to Dion James, Edelman and Amendola that Scott Chandler led the team in targets and the defense was playing without two of their best players, Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins and Dontía Hightower. Home underdogs have won just twice in seven games in conference championships, and that trend will continue on Sunday as Tom Brady and the Patriots get the win and cover on the road in Denver to book their seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the past fifteen seasons.
Mikeís Pick to Cover the Point Spread: New England -3
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