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

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:

Nov 022012
 

The New England Patriots enter the bye week at 5-3, a mildly surprising development that is made more surprising by the teams that the Patriots have lost to so far. While the thought of a loss on the road to the Ravens at the start of the season would have been considered a “quality” loss, the fact that the Patriots should have put that game away makes the loss a tough one to swallow even weeks later. Such was also the case in the Patriots’ effort against the Seattle Seahawks, where the Patriots had control of the game and allowed the Seahawks the opportunity to pull off a dramatic come from behind win. The loss to the Cardinals would be the one game that most could swallow, given that the Cardinals outplayed the Patriots for much of the contest. But the Patriots had their opportunity to pull out the win at the end, only to be held back on two calls against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal that sealed the deal.

Three of the Patriots’ five wins have been dominating performances (Titans, Rams, and second half against the Bills), but the two others have left Patriots’ fans just as frustrated as with the losses. The win over the Denver Broncos was a decisive victory in terms of the Patriots outplaying the Broncos, but a game effort by Peyton Manning made the game much closer than it should have been. Even worse, the Patriots struggled mightily at home against the Jets, allowing the Jets to hang in the game long enough to nearly pull off a comeback win. Only late heroics from Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski saved the day for the Pats, while the secondary continued to struggle. Although the win over the Rams was a well needed boost going into this week’s bye, the secondary remains a huge question mark for the second half of the season.

With all of that said, the signs are present that the Patriots could well be primed for a second half run that would result in their sixth appearance in the Super Bowl in 12 years. Let’s take a look at the factors that might give Patriots’ fans cause for hope in the second half of the season.

History of second half runs

Looking back at the Patriots’ history since their run of Super Bowls began, New England has a history of making improvements over the course of the season, often despite significant injury concerns. Here is a look at their records since 2001:

2001 – 4-4 in first half, 7-1 in second half (Super Bowl Champions)
2002 – 4-4 n first half, 5-3 in second half (no playoffs)
2003 – 6-2 n first half, 8-0 in second half (Super Bowl champions)
2004 – 7-1 in first half, 7-1 in second half (Super Bowl Champions)
2005 – 4-4 in first half, 6-2 in second half (Lost in Divisional Round)
2006 – 6-2 in first half, 6-2 in second half (Lost in AFC Championship)
2007 – 8-0 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Super Bowl)
2008 – 5-3 in first half, 6-2 in second half (no playoffs)
2009 – 6-2 in first half, 4-4 in second half (Lost in Wildcard Round)
2010 – 6-2 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Division Round)
2011 – 5-3 in first half, 8-0 in second half (Lost in Super Bowl)

In total, during this time the Patriots have gone 61-27 (.693) in the first halves of seasons and 73-15 (.830) in the second halves. In addition to its mastery of making adjustments during the course of a season, Bill Belichick’s squad also has a schedule that lends itself to a string of Patriots’ wins. After the break, the Patriots face the Bills, Colts, Jets and Dolphins, a series of four very winnable games. Their next two games are against the Texans and 49ers, two very tough games, but both at home in prime time. The Patriots then wrap up the regular season with games against the Jaguars and Dolphins. Looking at the schedule, the improvements that can be expected in the second half (detailed below), and a history of strong second half performances, it is not a stretch to imagine the Patriots going 7-1 the rest of the way through the regular season, and finishing 12-4 with a first round bye.

Dynamic offense

While much of the early season struggling is due to a defense that is still learning to play together as a unit, not to mention the hesitancy of the coaches to allow the Patriots to blitz more given the porous secondary, a fair amount of the struggle can also be traced to an offense that has failed to put away games that they should have put away. I will attribute much of this to the play calling of Josh McDaniels, who it seems is still trying to figure out how to use all of the weapons at his disposal. Even though Stevan Ridley has established himself as the primary running back, McDaniels has gotten “cute” with play calls in key moments when the best option was to slam Ridley through the line. In other cases, McDaniels has gone to trickery such as end arounds and low percentage screen plays in situations where the best option was to stick with passes over the middle that put them in the position to win the game to begin with. While there is great value at the end of the season and in the playoffs to make sure that all of the players have contributed to the offense, crucial moments in the game are not times to start trying to pull rabbits out of hats.

The dominating 45-7 win over the Rams is exactly what the Patriots are capable of doing on a weekly basis. Not so much in score as in the method of staking the team to an early lead, giving the defense some room for error, and then putting the game away when the opportunity presents itself. Until the defense is capable of winning games, and we appear to be at least a season away from that, it is critical that the offense be exacting and unrelenting in pushing the ball down the field. While I could wax wishful and make the case that the Patriots “should” be 8-0 at this point, Tom Brady is right when he says that the Patriots are exactly what they are, a 5-3 club trying to get better every week.

It is often said that any team with Bill Belichick as the Head Coach and Tom Brady as the quarterback has a chance to win the Super Bowl. The truth is far more complicated than that. While NFL is widely regarded as a passing league, the 2012 Patriots understand the importance of offensive balance as a part of the equation for winning a Super Bowl. The Patriots possess the league’s top offense (440.8 yards per game and #1 in points scored), but are not just doing it through the air. While the Patriots have the 5th ranked pass offense (291.1 ypg), they also possess the game’s 5th best rushing attack (149.6 ypg). The Patriots’ use of the short yardage passing game over the middle, and in particular their highly disruptive tight ends, are a nightmare for opposing defenses, and keep opposing safeties and linebackers off balance throughout a game. Their offensive packages are designed to create and take advantage of personnel mismatches, while limiting the opposition’s ability to make substitutions; it’s truly an offense that gives opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, that is when they can sleep at all. Even in their losses this season, the Patriots have not struggled to move the ball down the field, but instead have struggled on occasion to produce touchdowns. Once McDaniels is fully proficient in his play-calling, look for the Patriots to start winning games in convincing fashion, as they did against St. Louis. We may well hear claims and complaints as the second half unfolds that the Patriots are running up the score, which would be a very positive development in New England.

Improving defense

Stopping the running game is still a key to defensive success, even in a passing league. The Patriots possess one of the league’s top rushing defenses, and have already shut down Chris Johnson (4 yards), Fred Jackson (29 yards), CJ Spiller (33 yards), Willis McGahee (51 yards), Marshawn Lynch (41 yards), Shonn Greene (54 yards), and Steven Jackson (23 yards). Only Ray Rice of Baltimore has eclipsed the 100 yard mark against the Patriots (101), who rank 8th against the run, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. The combination of possessing an explosive offense that stakes the team to a lead, coupled with a stout run defense, turns opponents into one dimensional teams.

The secondary remains the team’s greatest weakness, and the unit is still a work in progress. The Patriots ranked 31st against the pass in 2011, with only the Green Bay Packers faring worse. The Patriots aren’t a ton better in 2012, ranking 28th while giving up 281.1 yards per game through the air and, even worse, routinely giving up twenty or more yards in a single play. Although Bill Belichick is a fan of “not giving it all up on one play”, we may be seeing a shift in his reluctance to bring a blitz to apply quarterback pressure. The Patriots blitzed Sam Bradford last Sunday far more than they have blitzed in recent weeks, and the increased quarterback pressure led to mistakes by the Rams’ quarterback, missing open receivers and not being able to go through his progression of reads. Understanding that his secondary is giving up yards in chunks anyway, why not blitz and give his beleaguered secondary some assistance so that they can play tighter coverage and limit big play opportunities for opposing offenses? Additionally, the Patriots played a gamble this week and traded next year’s fourth round draft pick in order to acquire troubled cornerback Aqib Talib (and a seventh round draft pick in 2013) from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Talib is currently serving a four game suspension for taking Adderall without a prescription, and the 2008 first round draft pick has had a difficult history both in college and in his time in Tampa. However, there is no denying Talib’s talent, and he could be an instant upgrade in the secondary. Talib is known for great coverage and ball skills, and has recorded 18 interceptions so far in his NFL career. Talib’s addition could allow the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to safety, a position he seems to have a more natural talent for. The trade for Talib is not without risk, but has a high potential upside. There is little doubt that the Patriots will set a one-strike policy for Talib, and he will have to grow up if he wants to revitalize his career with the Patriots.

Flawed AFC competition

Aiding the Patriots is that all of their competition in the weakened AFC is flawed. In the East, the Dolphins are performing admirably but have too many holes to make a serious run at the division title. The Ravens’ defense has suffered serious blows and looks incredibly vulnerable. There is strong doubt that the team can win the North after being staked out to an early lead. The Steelers are the prime competition in the North, but it seems we never know which Steelers team is going to show up. Truth be told, the Steelers don’t match up well against the Patriots; their revived defense will likely give up 30 or more if they face the Patriots in the playoffs, and their offensive line would struggle to open up running lanes or protect Big Ben. In the South, the loss of Brian Cushing is a serious blow to the Texans’ defensive unit. Houston remains the greatest threat in the AFC, but giving Bill Belichick a second look at a team like the Texans has me feeling pretty good about the Patriots’ chances. Finally, Denver is a real threat out of the West. As their earlier game demonstrated, there is a discernible talent gap between the two teams that favors the Patriots, but Patriot fans know all too well that anything can happen with Peyton Manning on the field, and the defense – while far from stellar – is disruptive enough to give the Patriots problems. Right now I’d have to give the “sleeper” nod in the AFC to the Broncos.

For their own part, the Patriots have been plagued by numerous minor injuries to players like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Steve Gregory, Patrick Chung, Logan Mankins, and others. But they have so far avoided the season-ending crushers at key positions that they have had to deal with in years past. While the team needs to use its bye week to get its players healthy, the Patriots are in far better shape than some of their opponents. This could be a key ingredient in a deep post-season run.

Conclusion

There is no guarantee that the Patriots will go on a second half tear and end up as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. But history tells us not to bet against it. The Patriots were one play away from winning the Super Bowl in two of the last five Super Bowls while possessing seriously flawed defenses. The question has always been, “how much does the Patriots’ defense have to improve for them to win it all again?” And we may get the answer to that question this season. The key for the Patriots is to put together a team that is in possession of the ball with two minutes left and with a lead in the Super Bowl, rather than having their secondary try to prevent a very talented quarterback from driving the field in the closing minutes. And in that respect, Patriots’ fans have to feel pretty good about their team’s chances.

Week 8 Recap

 Posted by
Oct 292012
 

Another Sunday, another wild slate of games in the NFL. The theme of this week’s outcome is job security, or in some cases the lack of job security for key coaches and players. There’s still half a season left to play, but some themes are beginning to take shape.

Here are your results from Week 8:

  • The Buccaneers whip the Vikings 36-17 and show that they may not yet be a serious playoff threat, but are a dangerous team to play; Doug Martin has a huge game with 135 yards rushing while Josh Freeman is effective in throwing for 262 yards and three touchdowns
  • Da Bears edge the Panthers 23-22 with late rally in ugly win on a game-winning field goal by Robbie Gould; Ron Rivera edges closer to the door depite a game effort from Carolina
  • Yes, it was played in the slop, but Norv Turner’s job security hangs by a thread after the Browns upset the Chargers 7-6; Trent Richardson runs for 122 yards in a solid outing
  • Matthew Stafford finally looks like Matthew Stafford for a week as the Lions edge the Seahawks 28-24 behind 352 yards and three touchdown passes by the Lions’ quarterback; Jim Schwartz moves off of the hot seat while Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch look good in last minute loss
  • The Packers struggle against the Jaguars’ defense but emerge with a 24-15 win; Blaine Gabbert outduels Aaron Rodgers but Rodgers earns the win
  • The Dolphins help edge Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez closer to finding a new color with a convincing 30-9 win; Reggie Bush wins the war of words and the game; perhaps the Jets should be apologizing to their fans
  • Andy Reid and Michael Vick updating their resumes after Matt Ryan and Julio Jones team up to whip the Eagles 30-17; Falcons now 7-0
  • Ben Roethlisberger, Jonathan Dwyer, and swarming Steelers defense halt RG3 and the Redskins 27-12
  • Patriots light up the Rams 45-7 as Brady is sharp and Ridley surpasses 100 rushing yards again; defense improved as both teams head into bye week
  • Andrew Luck and Vick Ballard connect for beautiful game winning touchdown in overtime as the Colts beat the Titans 19-13; so much for thinking that Matt Hasselbeck would claim the starting job back from Jake Locker
  • Raiders top the Chiefs 26-16; Brady Quinn’s reign lasts twelve and a half minutes while Darren McFadden rushes for 112 yards
  • Giants win a wild one as the Cowboys commit six turnovers in a 29-24 loss; Jason Garrett and Tony Romo now 3-4 and will no doubt evoke some reactions from Jerry this week
  • Broncos crush Saints 34-14 behind big performances from Peyton Manning, Willis McGahee, and DeMaryius Thomas; worst defense in the league just gets worse for the Saints
  • still to come: San Francisco – Arizona
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.