Gridiron Audibles: Patriots Return to AFC Championship

GRIDIRON AUDIBLES by Christian A. Guarino
GRIDIRON AUDIBLES by Christian A. Guarino

The national media grudgingly expects it, odds makers are banking on it, and come Sunday night, the Broncos will have to accept it.

This Sunday, the New England Patriots will go to Denver and win the American Football Conference title for the 9th time in franchise history and 7th under head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

A game being billed as the 17th, and most likely last installment of an epic matchup of future Hall of Fame Quarterbacks, the aforementioned Brady and the Broncos Peyton Manning, will be a slugfest between the two best teams in the conference squaring off for the right to play in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California on February 7th.

The two teams played in Denver back on November 29th with the Patriots forfeiting a 21-7 fourth quarter lead, falling in overtime 30-24. In that game, the Patriots were without wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Jamie Collins. They would lose linebacker Dont’a Hightower during the game, greatly hindering an already fragile defensive unit.

Last Saturday, a resurgent Patriots squad took down the Kansas City Chiefs rather impressively 27-20. Brady completed 28-of-42 passes for 302-yards and two touchdowns and also added a rushing touchdown. The two scoring strikes went in the direction of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who finished with seven catches for 83-yards. The much-maligned offensive line did not surrender a sack to the vaunted chiefs defense, keeping Brady clean all afternoon. Much of the credit should go in the direction of Edelman who returned to action, leading all pass-catchers with 10 receptions for 100-yards. His ability to create space allowed Brady to once again utilize his signature quick release, something that the Chiefs, like the rest of the NFL, lack an answer for.

FullSizeRender (3)Beating the Broncos on Sunday will depend greatly on the Patriots ability to stop Bronco runners. In November’s game, the Patriots defense had no answer for the Broncos rushing attack, particularly when Hightower went out, surrendering 179-yards on the ground.

In fact, while Hightower was in the game, the Brock Osweiler led Broncos offense couldn’t muster any points, hanging 30 on the Patriots down the stretch.

“They challenge you in the running game,” said Belichick. “They do a great job of setting up formations and trying to put your defense in a run-pass conflict, or some kind of a compromising spot with their formations, or their ability to change plays based on what the better look is. If we’re not sound, if we don’t play with good technique, if we don’t tackle well, it will be a problem. If we do those things then we should be competitive, but it won’t be easy.”

So what makes me so confident in this one?

Well it sure isn’t Tom Brady’s career win-loss in Denver where he is only 2-6, 0-2 in the playoffs.image1

My confidence stems from the fact that the Patriots are simply the better team, and Brady is the better quarterback. On the road versus Peyton Manning a few years back would have scared me. This time, not so much. While Manning has admirably stepped back into the starting lineup the last two games, his passing numbers remain mediocre; completing 26-of-46 passes for 291 yards and zero touchdowns. But despite throwing a career worse 17 interceptions in his first nine games this season, he stayed clean in that category over his last two matchups, home wins over the 4-12 San Diego Chargers and the Antonio Brown-less Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite his opponent’s mediocrity, Manning has efficiently played the role of game manager, a part that will simply not be enough in order to beat the Patriots. To win, Manning needs to do it through the air. The Patriots best game plan will be to ensure he gets that chance.

A win this Sunday will be for all the Patriots teams that failed in Denver. It will be for the first game in franchise history back in 1960. A game the Broncos literally stole 13-10 after head coach Frank Filchock stealthily sat in the stands at BU’s Nickerson Field (Patriots first home field) and watched the Patriots practice on the eve of the game. The original “spy-gate”, despite the fact that Filchock was known for his dirty tactics, which included accepting a bribe as a member of the New York Giants prior to the 1946 NFL Championship game, this story never garnered national attention.

It will be for that moment during a 1996 regular season game when Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe ridiculed the Patriots on national television by pretending to call then President Bill Clinton and petition him to “send in the national guard because we are killing the Patriots.”

Some are calling this game Manning’s last crack at another Super Bowl championship. After Sunday, the only Super Bowl activity Peyton Manning will be preparing for is his Papa Johns and Nationwide commercials that will air while Tom Brady is adding to his all-time Super Bowl passing records in his home state of California.

Christian A. Guarino, a Boston North End resident, writes about football and soccer for the Boston Post Gazette.