BOSTON (CBS) — After what felt at times like the longest week in the world, we are finally here: championship weekend.
That means, of course, that at long last we will finally see football. Specifically, it’s just about time for the Broncos and Patriots to take the field in Denver for 60 minutes, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
While Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have been the center of the football world’s focus this week, this game will be determined by a lot more than just the play of the quarterbacks. Here are four items to watch for once these teams kick off on Sunday.
No Stopping Knowshon?
For all of the Manning-Brady hoopla, there’s one player who’s getting overlooked: Knowshon Moreno. When these two teams met in late November, Moreno was nearly unstoppable, picking up 224 rushing yards and a touchdown on 37 carries.
While a huge part of that success had to do with the Patriots defense essentially giving the opportunity to Manning’s offense in order to limit the passing attack, Moreno still presented problems when he carried the ball. And all of those yards were picked up with Brandon Spikes on the field for the majority of downs.
Moreno’s a tough, hard runner who topped 1,000 yards this season, and someone on that New England defense is going to have to try to match that physicality to limit the impact the running back has on the game. Ultimately, it will be up to the Broncos to decide how much they’re going to trust their running game, but it’s up to the Patriots to first contain Moreno.
Everyone remembers the furious comeback from a 24-0 deficit which the Patriots pulled off in their November meeting, but somewhat lost in the details is the absurdly high turnover totals and all of the near-turnovers that could have made it even worse.
Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady and LeGarrette Blount all lost fumbles, but that wasn’t it. Brady recovered another one of his own and threw three passes that could have and likely should have been intercepted, and Julian Edelman fumbled twice on the same punt return (the Patriots recovered). For the Broncos, Peyton Manning threw an interception (and another, which was negated by penalty) and fumbled twice, though the Broncos recovered both. Trindon Holliday muffed a punt, which was recovered by the Patriots, Montee Ball fumbled and turned it over, C.J. Anderson bobbled a handoff in overtime before falling on the ball, and Tony Carter famously let a punt in overtime bounce off his body for yet another turnover.
Frankly, neither team had much to be proud about after that sloppy game, and it’s difficult to glean too much from that game in November when you consider all the turnovers. But this time around, it might be just one turnover that changes the scope of the game. Whichever team makes it could learn that the hard way.
Space For Edelman
The Broncos’ loss of cornerback Chris Harris was no doubt a huge one, with some folks out in Denver proclaiming him to be the team’s defensive MVP (to that, the Patriots would like to introduce you to Vince Wilfork). That may be the case, but Harris didn’t cover the Patriots’ most dangerous slot receiver last time out, when Julian Edelman caught nine passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
Edelman did much of his damage against Quentin Jammer, and it’s clear that Jack Del Rio is going to have to strategize a bit better if he wants to slow down Brady this time around.
Of course, Rob Gronkowski played in that game but won’t be on the field in Denver on Sunday, but the loss of Harris does force all of the defensive backs to sharpen their skills and simply be better than the group that allowed Brady to throw for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the windiest game of the season. No. 11 will be their No. 1 concern.
Jump On Blount’s Back
The Patriots have hopped on LeGarrette Blount’s back in recent weeks, allowing the fourth-year running back to bully and burst his way to huge rushing totals and an absurd eight touchdowns in his last three games. For the Broncos to stop him, they’re going to need at least three players on defense to literally hop on the man’s back, because it’s been proven that no one man can take Blount down.
Blount was so dominant in the divisional round that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels felt no temptation to veer from the running game, which ended up accounting for 234 yards and six touchdowns (Blount picked up 166 of those yards and four of those touchdowns) in a romp over the Colts. In fact, over their last three games, the Patriots have averaged 214 rushing yards, and Blount has led the way by averaging 143 yards per game in that same span.
The question isn’t “Can anyone stop him?” because the answer is no. It takes a herd to stop Blount. But the Broncos’ run defense is strong, finishing eighth in the NFL this season, and the Chargers could muster just 3.64 yards per carry last week in Denver, down from their 4.04 yards per carry during the regular season.
Blount touched the ball just twice in the November meeting due to that aforementioned fumble, but you can bet your house that he’ll be getting a heavy dose of the football on Sunday afternoon. Del Rio has his hands full in trying to orchestrate a defense that can both limit Brady and try to stop Blount, which has to be one of the major keys of the game.