Feb 032013
 

NFL AwardsSuddenly our picks for the post-season awards aren’t looking so far off of the mark.

The NFL announced it’s post-season award winners last night, and we have a recap of the award winners, along with the Gridiron Rats recipient.Um… yeah… we might have pretty well.

Here’s a summary of the award winners.

PetersonMOST VALUABLE PLAYER –  ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – ADRIAN PETERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Adrian Peterson was elected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, gaining 30.5 of the 50 votes cast by an Associated Press group of NFL writers. Coming off an ACL tear in December 2011, Peterson fell just nine yards short of the single-season rushing record, gaining 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. Peterson also captured honors for offensive player of the year, capturing 36 of the 50 first place votes. Peterson is only the third player to win both the MVP and the player of the year honors in a single season, joining Alan Page and Fran Tarkenton.

For the MVP voting, Peyton Manning received 19.5 first place votes. For the Offensive Player of the Year, Peterson finished ahead of Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Calvin Johnson.

Gridiron Rats also gave both awards to Peterson.

JJ WattDEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR – JJ WATT, HOUSTON TEXANS

JJ Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday night, with a near unanimous 49 out of 50 first place votes (Von Miller got the lone dissenting vote). Watt had a monster season with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections, to go along with 81 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. There is little question that “JJ Swatt” was the league’s most disruptive defensive player in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Gridiron Rats award went to Watt as well. (That’s 3 for 3 if you’re keeping score at home)

Robert-Griffin-IIIOFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – ROBERT GRIFFIN III, WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Perhaps our most controversial pick, Griffin earned the AP’s recognition with an impressive rookie campaign as he helped transform the Washington Redskins into a playoff team for the first time since 2006. Griffin landed 29 of the 50 first place votes, followed by Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Griffin finished the season with 3,200 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, only five interceptions, and he ran for another 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

We are now four for four, as the Gridiron Rats award went to Griffin as well.

Luke KuechlyDEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – LUKE KUECHLY, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Luke Kuechly picked up 28 of 50 first place votes to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Kuechly tallied 164 tackles as a rookie, to go along with one sack, two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and eight passes defensed. Kuechly received the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award in December, recording a league-high 59 tackles over the final five games of the season. Bobby Wagner of Seattle finished second with 11 first place votes, followed by Casey Heyward, Janoris Jenkins, and Lavonte David.

Kuechly also got the nod from Gridiron Rats, meaning we are five for five. Sensing a trend yet?

ManningCOMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR – PEYTON MANNING, DENVER BRONCOS

Anyone who thought Peyton Manning’s best days were behind him proved to be very wrong in 2012, as Manning returned from four neck surgeries and a missed 2011 campaign to lead the Broncos to a 13-3 record and first seed in the AFC playoffs. Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 105.8. Manning beat out Adrian Peterson for this award. Sadly for Manning, his brilliant regular season was once again tarnished by a post-season meltdown.

Not surprisingly, Manning also captured the Gridiron Rats award, placing us one award away from a perfect record. (Can you tell we are a little pleased with ourselves?)

Bruce AriansCOACH OF THE YEAR – BRUCE ARIANS, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

It’s quite a story when an offensive coordinator wins the Coach of the Year Award, but there is no coach more deserving of this award than Bruce Arians. Arians took over when Head Coach Cuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and he guided the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth just one year removed from finishing with the league’s worst record, allowing the Colts to draft Andrew Luck with the first pick in the NFL Draft. Chuck Pagano finished second in the voting, followed by Pete Carroll and Leslie Frasier.

Arian was our first award winner at Gridiron Rats, meaning we were a perfect seven for seven in foreshadowing the AP winners. Mind you, that wasn’t our goal; we were simply recognizing the players and coaches that we thought were most deserving of these honors. But apparently the AP voters felt much the same way about each award, and if we are to be criticized for our selections (and there is plenty of debate to be had for some of these awards), then at least we have the satisfaction of being supported by the “official” awards.

Jan 092013
 

Ravens-BroncosThree of the four NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups this weekend are rematches of regular season games that were so one sided that nobody, sans the revenge seeking losers of each game, would clamor to see based on the initial result. Less than a month ago, Denver traveled to Baltimore and opened up a 31-3 lead behind Knowshon Moreno’s 115 yards en route to a 34-17 victory. For the Broncos it was their 9th straight win and also the 9th straight win for Peyton Manning against Baltimore. His mere presence at the helm snapped a 5-game losing streak for Denver in Baltimore and provided further proof that recent Bronco history must receive a separate distinction between pre-Manning and the present. For the Ravens Week 15 this marked the first performance of the Jim Caldwell offense, as Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron in the midst of what would turn out to be a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season.

Both teams arrive at this point, the Divisional round, for the second straight year-albeit under much different circumstances from a season ago. This time last year Denver was riding Tebowmania and an upset of a battered Steelers team in the Wild Card Round. This year Manning is at the helm and the offense has improved from 23rd a season ago to 4th; meanwhile, the defense has made a similar climb from 26th to 2nd. A season ago, Baltimore was the team coming off the bye and would roll into the AFC Championship and land a heartbeat away from a second Super Bowl appearance. Baltimore on the other has seen its defense fall to 17th after a myriad of injuries to Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis (who did not play vs. Denver), and company—its worst ranking since 2002 and only its second time out of the top 10 since 1998. Nonetheless, it was the defense that led the way in a 24-9 Wild Card weekend victory over the Colts to set up a rematch of December 16th—this time in Denver. Baltimore’s road to the Super Bowl in 2000 began with a 21-3 victory over Denver; they will likely need more than history on their side against this Denver team.

The Keys for Baltimore
Joe Flacco needed only 12 completions last week to tally 282 yards and two touchdowns. Baltimore handled the Indianapolis rush extremely well last week and Flacco was sacked only once. Baltimore will need to give Flacco time to use his downfield accuracy. He was able to strike downfield consistently against the Colts, particularly to Anquan Boldin. Boldin was unable to secure a single reception against Champ Bailey and the Denver secondary in the first match-up and will need a performance more reminiscent of last week’s 145 yard effort for the Ravens to find success. The type of protection provided last week was not there for Flacco in the regular season match-up (While sacked only three times he was pressured all day. Boldin and counterpart Torrey Smith combined for just 15 yards between them and their inability to get open compounded things for Flacco. The turning point in that game was when Flacco was pressured into an interception that Chris Harris returned 98 yards. Baltimore fell down too deep in that game to utilize the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice Combo. The duo rushed for a combined 58 yards in the first meeting. Last week, the tandem rushed for 178 yards—overcoming two Ray Rice fumbles– and will be counted on to take pressure off of Flacco and maintain favorable time of possession. Baltimore will need similar output from the running game minus the fumbles, along with mistake free football from Flacco to pull out the upset.

Fairly healthy for their game against Indianapolis, Baltimore was able to notch 3 sacks and two turnovers with constant pressure on Andrew Luck. The Denver offensive line unit is much more capable than the Colts and yielded only 21 sacks; however, similar pressure will be needed for Baltimore if they are going to force Manning into a rare mistake. In the first match-up—if anything could be taken as a positive—Baltimore’s defense was able to tame Manning for the most part with the exception of a couple of long play action plays that stemmed from Moreno’s effective ground output. The Raven’s can point to Ray Lewis’ 13 tackle performance in his return and the fact that Moreno’s Week 15 performance came in Lewis absence as an indication that they have a true advantage against the Broncos running game. If Baltimore can limit the running game they can limit the play action; in conjunction with a solid pass rush they will then boil things down to their ability to match Denver in man coverage. Last week, despite all the pressure the brought, Baltimore’s secondary did yield 300 yards to Luck. The Raven’s will be counting on their defense to rush the passer similarly to last week and handle Denver in man coverage like they did in the first game. A tall order; but a necessary one if Baltimore is to spring the upset.

The Keys for Denver
Historically, Peyton Manning has had mixed results in the post season against teams he has played (5-6) and defeated in the regular season (2-3). During the regular season meeting with Baltimore he was mostly held in check as Baltimore held him to 204 yards. Incidentally, Knowshon Moreno had his finest performance in what has been mostly a shoddy performance as the starter in Willis McGahee’s absence—his ability to duplicate his 115 yard performance, or even approach it, will be tested with Ray Lewis in the lineup for this match-up. If Moreno comes close it will go a long way toward positioning Denver for a victory. Moreno’s effective running paved the way for an strong play action game that benefited Eric Decker. Decker had 8 catches for 133 yards; however, Demaryius Thomas struggled against Carly Williams and the Baltimore secondary. While Moreno will be counted on to produce on the ground, Thomas will need to step his game up on the outside with a performance more becoming of the 1400 yard receiver he has become. Denver would get a solid boost in the pass game if their line can hold up to Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger in a battle that will pit a top pass protection unit versus a strong pass rush. As stated, Manning has been sacked on 21 times this year and the battle up front has been consistently won by Denver throughout the season.

Denver’s 52 sacks ranked atop in the NFL and they have already experienced the results yielded by Joe Flacco when faced with heavy pressure—a game changing turnover and a completion percentage of 50%. Denver’s will need to continue to get the type of pressure they have gotten in their 11 game winning streak from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, and company. Meanwhile, the secondary will need to continue its strong play–despite featuring a heavy rush and leaving their secondary in man coverage situations no team was as proficient against the pass on third down in the regular season. This trend must hold true for Denver on Saturday. The Broncos compounded Baltimore’s problems by grounding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in Week 15 early and then forcing Flacco into a key mistake that dashed any hope of the Ravens establishing any stability on the ground. Pierce was the more effective back last week, topping over 100 yards while Rice was a mixed bag of big plays and lost fumbles, but Denver’s 3rd ranked rushing attack will need to contain both backs in order to orchestrate a repeat of Week 15.

The Outcome
It is tremendously difficult to locate a distinct advantage that Baltimore has in any key area that can be exploited to foster a victory. The return of Ray Lewis and the defensive momentum garnered against the Colts further tempered by the facts that they were playing an inexperienced Colts team, in Baltimore, which was not yet equipped experience success on the playoff stage. Denver has won 11 in a row…true momentum. Denver certainly yields a talent advantage at running back where Moreno is nowhere near the talent of the Rice/Pierce duo. Nonetheless, their run defense negates even that potential area of strength for Baltimore. It’s hard not to love the game breaking ability of Jacoby Jones and the stellar kicking of Justin Tucker but Baltimore won’t be kicking 7 field goals and returning two kicks for touchdowns.

The stagehands can lower the curtain on Ray Lewis’ career. Denver is better in all aspects and will win going away.

Denver Broncos 31-Baltimore Ravens 17

Jan 062013
 

Rat's Awards ImageNow we get to the top three awards, beginning with the DPotY. For much of the season, media and fan focus on defense was directed at the pursuit of the sack record by Aldon Smith and JJ Watt, with Von Miller not far behind. And while some consider sacks to be an overrated statistic (as it is not reflective of the amount of total quarterback pressure applied by a team), it is certainly something that grabs our attention and keeps us interested in defensive players. But there were many good defensive stories in 2012, and our nominees reflect the best defensive accomplishments across the league this season.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Our nominees in this category included NaVorro Bowman (SF), Chad Greenway (MIN), Tim Jennings (CHI), Luke Kuechly (CAR), James Laurinaitis (STL), Jerod Mayo (NE), Von Miller (DEN), Patrick Peterson (ARI), Aldon Smith (SF), and JJ Watt (HOU).

3rd Place – Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Smith finished second in the sack race with 19.5 sacks on the year, but is a disruptive presence well beyond his sack production. Smith tallied 66 combined tackles, one interception, and three forced fumbles in addition to his pursuit of Michael Strahan’s single season record. But playing alongside NaVorro Bowman, who racked up 149 combined tackles and who was also a disruptive presence for the 49ers’ defense, clearly hurt Smith in the voting.

2nd Place – Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Miller had 68 combined tackles to go along with his 18.5 sacks, one interception, and six forced fumbles as he helped bring the Broncos’ defense back to respectability after the unit struggled at the end of the 2011 season. Miller has quickly established himself as one of the game’s elite pass rushers, accumulating 30.0 sacks in his two NFL seasons.

JJ WattWINNER – JJ Watt, Houston Texans
If you look up “disruptive” in a dictionary, you just might see this picture next to the definition. Watt was an amazing force in 2011, particularly after the Texans lost defensive anchor Brian Cushing for the season. Watt amassed 81 combined tackles, 20.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, and an incredible 16 passes defended as the Texans posted a 12-4 record and won the AFC South for the second year in a row. In his two seasons in the NFL, Watt has established himself as a player for whom game plans must be developed. Because of his knack for batting balls down at the line of scrimmage, he was nicknamed “JJ Swatt” by former NFL head coach Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football.

Dec 032012
 

Week 13 served as a start reminder of how quickly lives can take a tragic turn. This Saturday, as I was home putting up a Christmas tree with my family and enjoying time with my loved ones, Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before going to Arrowhead Stadium. He encountered Chiefs’ GM Scott Pioli, who tried to calm him down. Head Coach Romeo Crennel and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs were also brought outside to speak with Belcher, who thanked each man for the opportunities he was provided with. Then, when police arrived, Belcher turned the gun on himself.

Of all the things said this weekend, it was quarterback Brady Quinn’s comments that resonated the most. “The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn said after the game. “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?” Quinn continued with, “We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

Well said, Brady. And with those words I hope to focus more on the people around me, and a little less on staying connected through my phone. In the final analysis, our lives are remembered and judged based on the relationships we have, and how much we commit ourselves to them.

Week 13 Recap

  • The Falcons top the Saints 23-13 in a game sure to be remembered as one of Drew Brees’ worst; Falcon’s defense comes through as Atlanta wraps up the division crown
  • Buffalo pounds Jacksonville 34-18 behind solid performances from Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson; Bills rush for 232 yards in the win
  • Seahawks win away from home as they stun the Bears 23-17; Russell Wilson continues a solid rookie campaign with 293 yards and two touchdowns
  • Andrew Luck rallies the Colts to a dramatic last second win over the Lions 35-33; Lions’ defense squanders another monster game by Matthew Stafford and Megatron
  • Speaking of wasting great performances, Adrian Peterson rushes for 210 yards and a touchdown, but the Vikings fall to the Packers 23-14; Morgan Burnett picks off Christian Ponder twice in the win
  • The Chiefs overcome tragedy to pull off 27-21 win over the Panthers; Brady Quinn throws for two touchdowns and Jamaal Charles rushes for 127 yards
  • Patriots wrap up the AFC East with 23-16 victory over the Dolphins; Stevan Ridley and Jerod Mayo play key roles in the win
  • Greg McElroy comes off bench, leads Jets to 7-6 victory over the Cardinals;  Shonn Greene rushes for 104 yards as the Cardinals’ meltdown continues
  • The Rams have the 49ers number this season, as St. Louis edges San Francisco 16-13 in overtime; rookie Janoris Jenkins returns a fumble for a score
  •  The Texans whip the Titans 24-10 to clinch a playoff spot; rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus is merciless in recording two sacks and a fumble recovery
  • The Broncos lock up the AFC West with a 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers; Manning throws for three touchdowns and Von Miller returns an interception for his first NFL touchdown
  • The Steelers stun the Ravens 23-20 with Charlie Batch throwing for 276 yards; Flacco not looking like an elite quarterback in the loss
  • The Browns win a second straight game with a 20-17 victory over the Raiders; Browns break road losing streak on the backs of Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon while Brandon Myers has 14 receptions in a losing effort
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushes for 111 yards as Bengals win fourth in a row, defeating the Chargers 20-13; Rivers continues turning the ball over at crunch time
  • The Cowboys beat the Eagles 38-33 as Dez Bryant catches two touchdown passes and Morris Claiborne returns a fumble by Bryce Brown for the decisive score
  • RGIII throws for 163 yards and runs for 72 more while Alfred Morris rushes for 124 yards as the Redskins edge the Giants 17-16 to pull within one game of the division lead

Week 11 Recap

 Posted by
Nov 212012
 

It was a wild week in the NFL in Week 11, as three teams blew double digit leads to drop games late or in overtime. The Patriots and Broncos both stayed on a roll, and both lost a key player for several games. Meanwhile, the 49ers and Bears offered contrasting views of teams operating with backup quarterbacks, and the Bengals gained in the playoff race while the Lions continued to find a way to lose.

Here’s the Week 11 recap:

Week 10 Recap

 Posted by
Nov 122012
 

What did Week 10 teach us?

First, that no one is going undefeated this season now that the New Orleans Saints have taken out the Atlanta Falcons to drop them to 8-1.

Second, that Rex Ryan seems to be determined to get fired alongside Mark Sanchez at the end of the 2012 season.

Finally, that the Bears have a much better chance of winning games when their defense is on the field.

Here are the Week 10 results:

Oct 072012
 

In the end this game turned out almost exactly as I expected it to. The teams exchanged early touchdowns before the Patriots asserted control over the game for two quarters, and then the Broncos played a frenzied fourth quarter to close the gap to ten points and make the score respectable. And while the Broncos left some opportunities on the field Sunday, including two blunders by Willis McGahee, the game really wasn’t as close as it seemed at the end.

While Peyton Manning outdueled Tom Brady on the stat sheet, it was the Patriots’ dominance in the run game that once again stole the show for the Patriots. Stevan Ridley led the way with 151 yards on 20 carries, while the Patriots amassed 251 total rushing yards on the day and a team record 35 first downs. Brandon Bolden ran for 54 yards and Danny Woodhead added 47, including a huge 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 play that was instrumental in an early third quarter score as the Patriots opened up a 24-7 lead and turned the Broncos into a one dimensional team for the rest of the contest. On the other side, the Patriots’ defense limited McGahee to just 51 yards on the day. Turnovers were again a problem for the Broncos, as they turned the ball over three times compared to the Patriots’ one.

The Broncos looked like they were going to get off to a fast start when Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 43 yard pass play, but the ball was jarred loose by Sterling Moore, who recovered the ball and got the Patriots out of early trouble. After the teams traded punts, the Patriots then drove 84 yards on 12 plays, with Brady eventually connecting with Wes Welker for the first points of the day. The Broncos struck back on the next possession, scoring early in the second quarter when Manning found Joel Dressen for a one yard touchdown pass. The Patriots then began to force their will on the Broncos, taking 14 plays and 6:08 off the clock before Shane Vereen scampered in the last yard for a 14-7 Patriots lead. It was a lead that the Pats would not relinquish.

After the Broncos downed a punt on the Patriots’ two yard line, Brady engineered a 16 play drive to close out the scoring in the first half. Branden Bolden broke off a big 24 yard run and Ridley added a 14 yard run, and the Pats appeared primed to end the half with another touchdown. But a brilliant tackle by Von Miller stopped Bolden for a four yard loss and the Pats were forced to settle for a field goal, going into the half up 17-7.

The defenses asserted themselves at the outset of the second half, forcing each team to punt. But then the Patriots seized control of the game with yet another long, 16 play drive that took over six minutes, and ended with Brady taking the ball the final yard for a 24-7 lead. On the very next offensive play, Rob Ninkovich sacked Manning and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork. Three plays later Ridley ran for an 8 yard touchdown and a 31-7 lead, and it looked like the rout was on.

Of course playing against Peyton Manning means the rout is rarely if ever on, and Manning began leading the Broncos with some urgency, putting together a 10 yard drive in three and a half minutes that resulted in a beautiful two yard touchdown reception by Eric Decker, and the lead was cut to 31-14. After the Patriots were forced to punt, the Broncos moved the ball to the Patriots’ 47, where they faced a critical fourth and one. Manning hit McGahee for an easy first down play, but McGahee lost concentration and dropped the ball, giving in back to the Patriots with 10:54 remaining. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos’ 37 and faced a 4th and 5. Rather than punting for a short net gain, the Patriots decided to seal the win. Instead, Brady was sacked by Elvis Dumervil and Wesley Woodyard that resulted in a Patriots fumble and a 20 yard loss in the resulting scramble. The Patriots recovered, but it was Denver’s ball on downs. Manning then needed just 6 plays to connect to Brandon Stokely and cut the lead to 31-21.

The Broncos then decided on an ill-advised squib kick instead of kicking away, giving the Patriots great field position at their own 39 yard line. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos 37 after a big 20 yard run by Ridley, who then fumbled on the next play after Mike Adams jarred the ball loose and recovered it for the Broncos. The Broncos needed two scores and Manning completed three of his next six passes to get the Broncos to the Patriots’ 14 yard line, but then Rob Ninkovich came up with his second big impact play of the game, knocking the ball out of McGahee’s hands on the next play, which Jermaine Cunningham pounced on to seal the Patriots’ win.

The victory was Brady’s ninth in 13 games against Manning, but it was the running game and timely defense that propelled the Patriots to victory. Wes Welker caught 13 passes on the day for 104 yards and one touchdown, showing that the rumors of his demise were definitely premature. Rob Gronkowski caught four passes and Brandon Lloyd three as the Patriots’ balanced attack kept the Broncos guessing throughout the game.

Here’s how the game broke down –

When the Patriots ran:

The Patriots rushing attack dominated the Broncos all afternoon,  with Ridley averaging 5.4 yards per carry on his way to 151 yards, and Bolden and Woodhead combining for another 101 yards. Patriots’ blockers were able to seal the edge all day to get outside, and inside runs routinely turned up positive yardage. The Broncos had no answers for the Patriots’ ground game today. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

While it was not a performance for the ages, Brady was generally sharp, connecting on 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown pass. Brady was sacked four times on the day, as the Pats had difficulty with the Broncos’ edge rushers. But time and again when Brady needed a play, he found Wes Welker, who seemed to torch the Broncos at will. Advantage: Patriots

When the Broncos ran:

Willis McGahee was held to 51 yards, and the Broncos overall only managed to rush for 70 yards, and only 3.0 yards per carry. McGahee had one run of 11 yards and Manning scrambled for another 10, but otherwise the Patriots’ snuffed the Broncos rushing attack.. Once the Patriots secured the lead, the Broncos abandoned the run for the remainder of the game, until a key fumble by McGahee sealed the Broncos’ fate. The Patriots knew that shutting down McGahee early would be a key to victory, and they got the job done. Advantage: Patriots

When the Broncos passed:

What I said in my preview turned out to be true. Manning started out sluggishly, figured things out as the game progressed, put up huge stats and still lost the game comfortably. Manning threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, and was sacked only twice but one of those was a turnover that led to Patriots’ points. Demaryius Thomas had a solid day, catching 9 passes for 188 yards. Jacob Tamme added six catches and McGahee five, but it was Eric Decker’s pretty grab of a two yard Manning touchdown pass despite excellent coverage from Devin McCourty that should see time on the highlight reels. Advantage: Broncos

Special Teams:

Both kicking units had good days, as both Britton Colquitt and Zoltan Mesko were able to turn advantages on field position for their respective teams. Neither return unit made any major errors. Advantage: Tie

Key Moment: Danny Woodhead’s 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 that helped the Patriots open the game up to a 17 point lead in the third quarter

Game Ball: Stevan Ridley’s 151 yard performance has established him as a bona fide lead back in the Patriots offense and one of the top ten backs in the NFL in this early part of the season

Game Note: Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was active for the first time this season, and was involved in breaking up a few passes, including a key third down play to Brandon Stokely that forced a Broncos punt. The highly talented player dropped to the seventh round based on character issues, and the Patriots may have found themselves a diamond in the rough.

Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.