Football Outsiders

Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Scott Kacsmar

A trip to Super Bowl 50 is on the line, but this is another football game that will be decided by turnovers, field position, third downs, and the red zone. That may be the most boring way to describe Brady-Manning XVII: The Final Chapter, but it is the most accurate. When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady meet, the games have never been shootouts, and that should be especially true this week given the makeup of the 2015 Broncos.

This postseason has served as a good reminder of how different rematches can be. These teams in particular have played some wild games over the years that broke conventional wisdom. Let's take a quick flashback to the last four meetings.

  • Week 12, 2013 (Patriots win, 34-31): Denver's record-setting passing offense took the night off after a flurry of fumbles led to a quick 24-0 lead. Denver's 280 rushing yards were the most ever for a Manning-led offense, but that hurt the rhythm of the passing game. The Patriots rallied at home in the second half and the game was eventually decided in overtime after a muffed punt.

  • 2013 AFC Championship Game (Broncos win, 26-16): Manning was on point at home with a 400-yard passing game. The Patriots were missing Rob Gronkowski, and Aqib Talib was lost during the game, but the Broncos were also without Von Miller and Chris Harris, their two best defenders. New England's odd performance included an early deep shot for special-teamer Matthew Slater, and it was the first time in 63 games that the Patriots failed to be at least within one score in the fourth quarter.

  • Week 9, 2014 (Patriots win 43-21): Manning (57) and Brady (53) combined for 110 pass attempts, the most in a non-overtime game in NFL history. The game got out of control in the third quarter after Wes Welker lost a Manning pass for an interception, setting up a 10-yard touchdown drive for the Patriots to take a 37-14 lead. The final score came after Gronkowski made a ridiculous one-handed catch and followed it with an easy touchdown after the Broncos left Miller out wide in single coverage with him.

  • Week 12, 2015 (Broncos win 30-24): We will make several references to this game just because it is the most recent matchup, but things should look very different on Sunday. For really the first time since the 2006 season, Brady did not have one of his hyper-efficient slot receivers such as Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, or Danny Amendola available. The latter two were both out on this snowy night in Denver, the only snow game of the 2015 season. DeMarcus Ware and Jamie Collins were both out as well. Gronkowski was injured late, but only missed two drives. Dont'a Hightower played 32 snaps before leaving with an injury. Denver started Brock Osweiler instead of Manning while starters T.J. Ward, Sylvester Williams, and Louis Vasquez all left the game with injuries. All of these injured players will be active on Sunday.

    New England blew a fourth-quarter lead for just the 15th time in 15 seasons, and a muffed punt by Chris Harper was the turning point. Denver had trailed 21-7 to that point, but the short field was a major boost to the comeback effort.

    The 30-24 final looks like a high-scoring game and sounds even more promising for the Patriots now that they are healthy, but keep in mind each offense had 15 drives. It was not an efficient scoring day for either side. New England's scoring drives covered just 47, 15, 65, and 51 yards as the Patriots went 2-of-13 on third down. Denver's scoring drives were a little longer, but they still had the 38-yard touchdown drive after Harper's fumble and a 57-yard drive in overtime ended by C.J. Anderson's great 48-yard run. This was the only game this season where the Denver offense scored 30 points.

The thought of Denver scoring an efficient 30 points or getting 400 yards from Manning seems impossible right now despite how good he was just two years ago in this spot. Things have changed drastically and he will be looking to lean on home-field advantage, the running game, and his defense in this one. Brady is starting his 10th AFC Championship Game, but he only has 11 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in his first nine. What he does actually have this season is more touchdown passes (three) at Mile High than Manning (one), but winning big games on the road is a tough task for any team. If this game was in New England, I think I would be writing about a probable blowout like last year's Patriots stomping of the Colts.

Home teams are 60-30 (.667) all-time in the Conference Championship round, and Denver historically has a great home-field advantage, with the altitude tending to have an impact later in the game. For all their incredible records together, Brady and Bill Belichick are just 2-6 in Denver. New England clearly brings the superior offense into this game, but it is still unlikely to repeatedly drive long fields for touchdowns against Wade Phillips' defense. That is why the Denver offense must protect the ball, and the defense has to win on third down and force field goal attempts.

Fundamentals are imperative in a game like this, but the team that takes an aggressive approach is more likely to earn another trip to the Super Bowl.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy of either ESPN Stats & Information or Sports Info Solutions.

Patriots on Offense
NE OFF DEN DEF
DVOA 15.4% (5) -25.8% (1)
WEI DVOA 12.3% (6) -20.8% (4)
PASS 35.8% (4) -28.0% (1)
RUSH -6.1% (12) -22.8% (4)
RED ZONE 13.3% (11) -2.1% (13)
Broncos on Offense
DEN OFF NE DEF
DVOA -8.8% (25) -3.4% (12)
WEI DVOA -0.5% (17) -5.1% (14)
PASS -3.3% (25) 5.7% (13)
RUSH -10.3% (19) -16.2% (10)
RED ZONE -14.7% (26) 9.0% (22)
Special Teams
NE DEN
DVOA 3.9% (5) 0.7% (14)
NE kickoff +8.2 (2) -2.2 (22)
DEN kickoff +0.7 (10) +0.1 (18)
NE punts -6.7 (25) +1.3 (14)
DEN punts +3.1 (10) +4.9 (7)
FG/XP +14.1 (1) -0.6 (17)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

Expectations are for the Patriots to go pass-happy now that Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola are all back together. With Brandon LaFell as the third wide receiver on the outside, the Patriots can stay with this personnel and keep James White as the receiving back, and they should start the same five offensive linemen from the Week 12 meeting and from last week's win over Kansas City. New England really did seem to just flip the switch in that one, as Edelman's return to action for the first time in two months went very well and Gronkowski still looked as unstoppable as ever despite some health concerns. Brady was rarely breathed on, though getting just eight snaps from Justin Houston did not help the Chiefs' rush.

Suddenly the Patriots seem to be charging in with the offense that led to a dominant 9-0 start to this season. The Patriots had a league-low 14 giveaways while Denver only had seven takeaways at home, including the playoffs. New England's offense has not scored more than 28 points in any of its last 10 games, but now with a healthy group, the potential is there for a high point total. Only Pittsburgh (34) cracked 30 points on the Denver defense this season, and only Ben Roethlisberger threw for 300 yards (twice), but the Patriots may not even need that given the matchup on the other side of the ball. While some of the talk this week has been about Manning not being able to hit the deep balls anymore, the Patriots rarely even try them, throwing just two passes more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage last week. Everybody expects to see the dink-and-dunk offense, or death by 1,000 paper cuts offense, but shouldn't that include Phillips and the Denver defense too?

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

No one ignores the running game in favor of short passing like the Patriots, but is that strategy realistic on the road when you have to deal with crowd noise and the increased potential for communication issues? The Patriots beat the Jets this season with five handoffs from Brady, and had just eight carries against the Chiefs. Last year in the AFC divisional round, the Patriots got by Baltimore 35-31 with seven carries for 14 yards -- the fewest rushing yards by any winning team in postseason history. All of those games were at home, just as the Patriots were in the 2002 season opener when Belichick and Brady first showed their willingness to go with one-dimensional ruthlessness against the outmatched Steelers. The Patriots went with a pass on 33 of their first 37 plays. That was the plan for years against the Steelers; the Patriots rushed just eight times in a 34-13 win in 2007.

But what about taking the aerial show on the road? We did not have time to look at each game over 15 years and figure out when big leads in the fourth quarter inflated the run-pass ratio as it tends to do, but there are definitely fewer road triumphs for the Patriots. Since 2001, New England is 4-19 (.174) on the road when rushing a maximum of 20 times -- still better than league average (.077), but we are talking about needing a 21-point comeback to beat a bad 2002 Bears team. Another game was a 31-7 win over the 2006 Vikings, a great run defense that was shoddy against the pass under then defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. Some may remember that as it was a Monday night game. There was also the win in Buffalo this season, but I think we learned that the Bills were not who we thought they were on defense. New England had just 16 runs in its last two trips to Denver (both losses).

We may not see that ridiculous pass ratio this week, but Brady is a lock for 40-plus throws. Hats off to the Patriots if they get a productive game out of a 32-year-old Steven Jackson, but the running game is unlikely to get much push here against the No. 4 DVOA run defense, and you have to figure the Patriots are ready to accept that by design. Their longest run of the day could be an end around to Edelman or something creative like that. Jackson's most value may be in power situations (third- or fourth-and-short) where the Broncos ranked 31st. Of course, Brady is the most effective quarterback sneaker ever, though Denver actually stopped him on one in the 2014 meeting.

Denver's defense is more than formidable enough to slow down a one-dimensional attack. The Broncos are the first defense since the 2011 Steelers to not allow 400 yards of offense in any game. Denver actually allowed a season-high 396 yards to the Steelers last week after some struggles with using zone coverage, but Pittsburgh proved to be uniquely built to attack this defense with a vertical passing game and big-play receivers. Indianapolis also had success with a mobile quarterback in Andrew Luck, and Jay Cutler's mobility almost led to an upset in Chicago. Even the athletic Teddy Bridgewater led Minnesota to the fifth-most yards (325) in a game against the Broncos this year, so maybe there is something to having someone able to escape pressure and extend the play against this aggressive defense. As noted last week, only two teams cracked 100 rushing yards against Denver without the aid of quarterback rushing yards.

Brady got better at extending plays this season, but pressure is still the key to slowing him down. Brady's QBR when pressured was 12.7, which ranks 19th and is just a tenth behind Manning (12.8) this season. Denver likes to blitz a lot, finishing with the fourth-highest rate (41.7 percent) according to ESPN Stats & Info. No defense had a higher pressure rate than Denver (34.7 percent), while Brady ranked a very average 17th in pressure rate (26.0 percent) despite his quick release. Not blitzing much is really the right strategy against Brady as he tends to pick blitzes apart. Brady ranked second in QBR against the blitz (84.9) this season. However, Cian Fahey noted that Phillips usually rushed four in the Week 12 matchup. And in that matchup, Brady was sacked three times and completed 1-of-10 passes when pressured according to ESPN's charting data.

This offense runs through Gronkowski and Edelman, but let's quickly mention the other guys. Amendola has played well this year and can do some similar things to Edelman, but the two have rarely been productive in the same game. Amendola has 84 receiving yards on 17 targets since Week 14, but he is likely to see a lot of snaps. The Patriots used a lot of Keshawn Martin and tight end Scott Chandler in Week 12 because of all the injuries, but neither figures to be a big factor this time around.

White has not been as elusive as Dion Lewis was at breaking tackles, but he has been very effective as a receiving back. His receiving DVOA (33.2%) is more than twice as high as Lewis' DVOA (14.2%) this season. Denver ranks No. 2 against receiving backs, but did give up an 80-yard touchdown to Charcandrick West and a 63-yard touchdown to Brandon Bolden in Week 12. Denver allowed at least 40 YAC on three completions this season and those were two of the plays, though both were throws of 15-plus yards. The Patriots do as good of a job as any offense at getting their running backs down the field in favorable matchups with linebackers. Brady is 4-of-6 for 146 yards this season on deep passes to running backs.

Everyone knows the Patriots are going to throw it short, yet this strategy has consistently worked as long as Edelman and Gronkowski are catching the majority of the passes. Both are great after the catch, which is such a problem when playing New England. Brady threw 22 touchdown passes this season that were not caught in the end zone, and 13 of those plays featured at least one broken tackle. According to SIS charting, the Patriots were fifth in broken tackles per touch and the Denver defense was ninth. Denver was first in defensive DVOA against short passes, but the Patriots take things to another level.

Brady has thrown 70.9 percent of his passes within 10 yards this season. Eleven yards beyond the line of scrimmage is the last depth Brady has thrown at more than a dozen times this season. Everything beyond 11 yards is sparingly attempted in this offense, and you can see where they really clean up is in that 3- to 9-yard range.

Tom Brady's Passing by Air Yards (PYD) Splits for 2015
PYD %Passes Passes Comp. Pct. Yards YPA DYAR Rk DVOA
Behind LOS 14.2% 88 74 84.1% 545 6.19 100 3 9.0%
0-2 14.0% 87 56 64.4% 295 3.39 5 19 -10.3%
3-6 30.3% 188 132 70.2% 1183 6.29 357 6 17.3%
7-9 12.4% 77 52 67.5% 647 8.40 438 1 79.9%
10-15 13.2% 82 47 57.3% 829 10.11 476 6 80.0%
16-25 9.8% 61 30 49.2% 819 13.43 368 7 99.3%
26+ 6.1% 38 11 28.9% 452 11.89 84 22 52.2%

Note: DYAR ranks are compared to all 32 teams' season data instead of individual quarterback DYAR.

New England is 22-1 in the last 23 games Edelman has played. It is hard to explain how a receiver who rarely gets targeted more than 10 yards down the field can have such a big impact on the game, but he does. By playing so much in the slot he gets a lot of mismatches in coverage and has great YAC ability. He has had some issues with drops since a finger injury in Indianapolis, but a healthy Edelman pretty much walks into the stadium with seven catches for 70 yards on the stat sheet.

Edelman may prove to be the key to this game given the health status of cornerback Chris Harris, Denver's best option at covering the slot. Even a healthy Harris struggled with Edelman in 2014, but if his shoulder injury leaves him as a one-armed man, then this could be very problematic for Denver, especially because the Broncos will need to ditch the zone and get back to tight man coverage on these receivers. Last week, there was a play where Harris actually pushed Sammie Coates forward on a 37-yard gain, unable to wrap up the tackle. Harris is reportedly a game-time decision, though the Broncos could be using some gamesmanship here. This is the matchup to watch.

Then you have the seemingly indefensible Gronkowski, but that may be a bit of a misnomer. To a degree, defenses do limit Gronkowski. He caught more than seven catches in just one game this season, and his season-high in yards is 113, done three times actually. So it's not like he just obliterates every defense out there every week. The Dolphins held him to 18 yards on seven targets in that bizarre Week 17 game that lost home-field advantage for the Patriots. Where defenses tend to lose their minds on Gronkowski is in the red zone, where he is an incredible threat, especially when you decide to leave him in single coverage.

Last week against Kansas City, both of Gronkowski's touchdowns came when he was in single coverage out wide. In Week 12, Denver left him on an island again and he broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. Last year, the Patriots flexed Gronkowski out wide and Jack Del Rio was inexplicably OK with letting Miller take him in single coverage on a 1-yard touchdown. The double-team in the red zone should be automatic, and even then Gronkowski might win a few of those battles, but he is dominating the war against single coverage. Defenses have to make the ball go somewhere else in the red zone.

If I was Phillips, I would routinely rush three or four, shrink the field by bringing the safeties up, and cloud the middle with defenders. I might put Aqib Talib on Gronkowski with safety help from Ward just to have someone more athletic on him as Talib once did for New England against Jimmy Graham in 2013. Again, if the Patriots are going to beat you with LaFell, then hats off to them, but Bradley Roby can take care of that matchup. Maybe they bring Kayvon Webster in for Amendola, or stick with using a third safety like Josh Bush. Either way, Denver should dare the Patriots to run the ball and throw deep, which are things they are not likely to do. The safeties can help with the coverage on Edelman and Gronkowski, because we know that's where the ball is going most of the day.

If we know this, then Phillips and the No. 1 defense should know it too.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

It is hard to believe the offenses in the 24th meeting between Manning and Belichick can ever take a back seat to the other side of the ball, but they do this week. However, sometimes the premiere matchup is not the decisive one. The difficult task ahead of Gary Kubiak and Manning is to balance a conservative game plan built around the running game and ball security with just enough passes to attack this defense. Manning has not thrown an interception since coming off the bench in Week 17, but he did have some major issues with that earlier in the season. Belichick also usually shows him something new after all these years to force such a mistake.

As much as Belichick still respects Manning, you have to think the game plan this week is to show Manning no respect. Load up the box to stop the run, press the receivers and force Manning to beat you deep where he seemingly overthrows every attempt this year. Simple, right?

I gambled last week that Denver would win and we would get into more of the nuts and bolts of this offense, but frankly, what is there to say? We know this has not been a good offense this season. It was terrible in Week 1. It got a little better in Week 2 when Kubiak let Manning go back to the shotgun and pistol. From that point through the Indianapolis game, Manning was doing better, averaging at least 7.6 yards per attempt in five out of six games, but still not scoring efficiently or playing safe with the ball. Then he had the injuries and played the worst game of his career against the Chiefs in Week 10. If Manning plays like that again, then you'll likely see Brock Osweiler on Sunday, but nothing suggests he will outside of maybe Ty Law's presence in the stadium. Stories this week about Osweiler playing in this game are ridiculous to say the least, especially the ones that suggest benching Manning if the game gets to a two-score margin. It's like people forgot a shaky Osweiler performance put the Broncos down 21-7 against New England before the muffed punt that changed everything. This is Manning's game, and it could be the last of his career. Or, if things go well, the second-to-last game.

Manning has looked healthier since returning, and the protection has been better. He is taking more snaps under center now, but the success of the running game is still largely determined by the offensive line. Our own offensive line analyst Ben Muth saw improvement from right tackle Michael Schofield last week, but Schofield will have to maintain that level of play. Pittsburgh had 48 sacks (third in the league), but only got Manning once. New England actually ranks second to Denver (52) with 49 sacks, a strong return on the No. 19 pressure rate (26.2 percent) according to ESPN Stats & Info. The interesting part is New England blitzed at the lowest rate in the league (19.0 percent). Defenses have been blitzing Manning often this year (35.3 percent) with decent success (60.9 QBR ranks 20th), but the Patriots may not want to change up their strategy. Manning is not one to take coverage sacks, and he will look to get rid of the ball quickly, which could lead to some turnover opportunities.

Manning was very accurate last week and showed good patience despite a solid seven drops from his receiving corps. Obviously things have to be sharper this week, though according to ESPN, the Broncos lead the league in dropped passes since Week 9. Most of those passes were thrown by Osweiler, so we can't blame the drops on Manning's delivery or last week's wind. This offense just struggles to hang onto the ball; witness the five drops Demaryius Thomas had in Week 12 when he only caught 1-of-13 targets for 36 yards. That was such a bizarre game, but you have to figure he'll fare better this time in his matchup with Logan Ryan. Emmanuel Sanders is more reliable and will go up against Malcolm Butler. New England's cornerbacks are good, though they do allow some big plays, which explains why each has allowed an average of 8.5 yards per target according to SIS charting. For reference, Denver's Chris Harris (6.8) and Talib (6.0) have a lower yards per pass average even though Butler's success rate is higher.

One of the big plays allowed by these New England corners was Sanders' 39-yard catch over Butler on the go-ahead drive in regulation after Thomas beat Ryan for 36 yards. Those two big throws from Osweiler were two of the few he made this year, though it is not certain if Manning can still do that. He has completed 33.7 percent of his deep passes this season. Manning's best bet may be to underthrow a ball and let the bigger Thomas work his way back to it, but Thomas really has to overcome his past demons with drops and press coverage to win this matchup. We know the other receivers are not very reliable for Denver, which actually saw six wideouts catch a pass last week. That may be a good plan to get more people involved, and Bennie Fowler seems deserving of more playing time as a No. 3 wide receiver. He made the pivotal 31-yard catch on third-and-12 on Denver's game-winning drive and has come up with a few big plays this year. Tight end Owen Daniels actually had five catches for 48 yards in Week 12, though the more athletic Jamie Collins will be active this time. Manning-to-Daniels has not been very good this year, though maybe another unexpected bootleg pass could come in handy.

Manning completed seven passes thrown in the 10- to 17-yard range last week, but we have not seen him hit anything over 20 yards since Week 9. He will try so that the Patriots back up the safeties, but he has to avoid the turnovers on those plays. Manning has one touchdown pass to eight interceptions at home this season. The latter total is inflated by the four-pick game against the Chiefs, but the former is stunning for the NFL's all-time touchdown thrower. The Broncos only have five touchdown passes at home this season, and their touchdown pass rate (1.7 percent) is the second-lowest for a playoff team in the Super Bowl era (lowest: 1971 Vikings, 1.5 percent). The offense really does seem to go into a shell more at home this season, and conservative football is not known to beat the Patriots. Denver has to open up the offense a bit more to avoid getting behind in the down-and-distance. The Broncos rank 13th in DVOA in first-down passes, one of their few above-average areas, compared to 23rd on first-down runs.

The willingness to defer to the running game could be big for this version of Old Manning, who has done a good job of sticking with the run and knowing when to audible. C.J. Anderson is clearly the best runner on this team, but Kubiak has gone with a 50/50 split with Ronnie Hillman in the past. You have to live with some bad runs if you stay committed to this approach, but Denver should target at least 30 carries in this game. Fortunately, New England only ranks 21st in stuff rate. The Patriots also have some linebacker injuries to keep an eye on. Jerod Mayo is out for the season, but he was low on the totem pole in that group, and they have gotten used to playing without him. Collins, Hightower, and Chandler Jones should all be good to go this week. Many thought Hightower's injury in Week 12 opened up those big runs for Denver that included three touchdown runs of 15-plus yards, including two plays to the left from Anderson. I am not a fan of saying one linebacker can make that much of a difference, but it should help New England to have these guys back. Anderson's good at breaking tackles, obviously, but the Patriots are outstanding at wrapping up. SIS charting ranks them second in fewest broken tackles per tackle.

Denver may need another second-half surge in this one. Fortunately, the Patriots fall from seventh in first-half DVOA to 22nd in the second half (23rd in late/close situations). Manning used to have to go into New England games expecting to score 30 to have a shot. He seems to realize his current physical limitations, and that this is a team led by its defense with a coach who favors the run. If Manning can make enough of the throws and checks that Kubiak asks of him, then Denver has a good chance to win this one.

SPECIAL TEAMS

You could make the argument that a rare special teams mistake by New England is the reason this game is in the Mile High altitude instead of in New England. Chris Harper's muffed punt with the Patriots ahead 21-7 with 14:15 left sparked Denver's Week 12 comeback on a short field. This is just another area where the return of Amendola (and Edelman) helps. Edelman had an 84-yard punt return touchdown against the Broncos in 2014, though it may just be Amendola on the returns this week. Punting is the weakness in New England's fifth-ranked special teams; they rank 25th in net value with punter Ryan Allen. However, remember when we mentioned last week that Omar Bolden was going to be a boost for Denver's return unit? He did start the game with a 42-yard punt return. Unfortunately, a knee injury later in the game ended his season, leaving the Broncos to turn to Emmanuel Sanders or Jordan Norwood. Both have a season-long punt return of just 14 yards.

Let this serve as a reminder of just how much the 2011 rule change of moving kickoffs to the 35 has decreased the importance of kick returns. In 2010, the Broncos (59) and Patriots (56) combined for 115 kick returns. This season, they have 52 kick returns between them. It was confusing to see the Patriots rank 10th in kick return value when they only average 18.8 yards per return (ranked 31st), but a 75-yard return by Keshawn Martin helps when you only have 25 returns, total. It is even bigger when you have several returns that were not advanced due to game situation, such as onside or squib recoveries. Now the numbers make more sense, though there just are not enough kick returns these days to place much importance on them unless you have an outstanding return man, which neither team really does as far as kickoffs go.

Brandon McManus (fifth) and Stephen Gostkowski (third) both rank in the top five in touchback rate, and doing their part to pin these offenses deep will be very important this week. McManus had a strong kicking game in very windy conditions last week, while Gostkowski is arguably the finest kicker in the NFL. He calmly drilled a 47-yard field goal to send Week 12's meeting into overtime. You do not expect either kicker to have a meltdown, but then again, most of the crucial misses in playoff history were unexpected.

OUTLOOK

Since 2001, the Patriots are 12-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent and 10-8 in a rematch from the regular season. The 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts, 2011 Giants, and 2012 Ravens were able to sweep the Patriots, while the 2010 Jets won two out of three. So teams have been able to repeat their success from the first matchup or find new wrinkles to beat New England again.

The fifth playoff meeting between the two legendary quarterbacks has eerily come full circle to the first meeting, the 2003 AFC Championship Game, but with a role reversal. In that one, Manning led his high-powered Indianapolis passing offense into New England, the stingiest scoring defense in 2003. Those Patriots had a smoke-and-mirrors offense and played many close games, needing to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime seven times. Jump to this year and it's the other way around. The Patriots, now healthy, boast perhaps the most dangerous passing game in the league. They come into Denver, home of the No. 1 defense in points per drive, looking to outscore a very pedestrian Broncos offense. The Broncos have also lived on the edge all year, with seven game-winning scores in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Of course, one big difference is the Patriots still bring a formidable defense masterminded by Belichick, and that is why New England has the better-rounded team and edge in this matchup. The Patriots deserve to be a slight road favorite, but as it has all year, the Denver defense should keep this one interesting and winnable for the home team.

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. For the conference championships and Super Bowl, there are two charts, one for offense and one for defense. The defensive chart is reversed so that improving (i.e. lower DVOA) is on top and getting worse (i.e. higher DVOA) is on bottom.

Comments

47 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2016, 1:53pm

1 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by BroncFan07 // Jan 22, 2016 - 2:38pm

Geez, just realized Manning's only home TD pass was a 1 yd pass against the Vikings. Didn't know I witnessed history that day.

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2 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Will Allen // Jan 22, 2016 - 3:28pm

If the Broncos offensive line isn't lousy, the Broncos can win. It's usually been lousy this year, however, which will mean the Patriots will get past 20 points, and the Broncos will struggle to get to 17.

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4 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by deus01 // Jan 22, 2016 - 3:44pm

It will also depend on whether the Broncos receivers learned to catch over the course of this week.

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24 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Bobman // Jan 23, 2016 - 3:46am

My TV is off right now, but I may go in to yell at it anyway, picturing those horrid drops. Might even throw a few potato chips at the damn TV, just like last Sunday.

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3 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Will Allen // Jan 22, 2016 - 3:28pm

If the Broncos offensive line isn't lousy, the Broncos can win. It's usually been lousy this year, however, which will mean the Patriots will get past 20 points, and the Broncos will struggle to get to 17.

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5 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by RickD // Jan 22, 2016 - 4:23pm

"He caught more than seven catches in just one game this season, and his season-high in yards is 113, done three times actually."

Well that's the weird stat of the day.

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31 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Jerry // Jan 23, 2016 - 10:21am

Another manifestation of Belichick's genius, no doubt.

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6 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by poplar cove // Jan 22, 2016 - 4:29pm

Denver has to feeling a bit slighted by the lack of respect they've been getting all week from the fans and media as it seems that almost no one is giving this team a chance to win this game.

Take a look at how good this franchise has been the past four years:

The Broncos have had the best regular season record in the NFL in the last four years at 50-14 overall while going 28-4 at home. They've also had a better overall team DVOA than New England in 3 of those 4 years.

Denver was tied with having played the 2nd most amount of games during the regular season this year against the most top ten teams with 7 games played overall while New England was tied for last, playing the fewest amount of games against top ten teams this year with only 2 games overall*. Only three teams in the NFL had a winning record in their games against top ten opponents during the regular season this year with Denver (5-2 overall) tied with Carolina (3-0 overall) for #1 in the NFL at +3 wins overall on the year.

I will be the first one admit that despite all of this knowledge I also don't see the Broncos winning this game either. Just don't think they've been getting enough credit for all they've accomplished of late.

*top ten teams considered by most places including at Jeff Sagarin and Massey Ratings plus were the only ten teams this year to finish the season with DD wins and a playoff berth.

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8 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by dmstorm22 // Jan 22, 2016 - 5:28pm

It is surprising how little chance people think Denver has in this game. They are at home - a place the Patriots have historically struggled playing at - with the league's best defense. That is usually a decent recipe to at least have a good chance.

Despite what people think of Manning, the Broncos can easily score ~20 points, which may be enough.

The last time I think people discounted a good team's chances this much in a title game was the Ravens in 2011 when the Patriots needed a drop by Lee Evans to win.

I have a feeling this game will be close. I think the Patriots are favorites, but nowhere near to the level the public seems to.

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9 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by JIPanick // Jan 22, 2016 - 5:37pm

It reminds me of the Broncos/Seahawks Super Bowl a little bit. Public opinion (and betting money) are chasing the hot quarterback and neglecting a great defense on the other side more than they should.

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20 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Anon Ymous // Jan 22, 2016 - 10:29pm

There is a moderate similarity, but Denver's defense and special teams were were worse in 2013 than NE's this year, and Seattle's offense was better than Denver's this year. About the only feather in Denver's cap was the dominant offense.... that wasn't all that dominant at the end of the year.

Seattle was just a much better, more well rounded team that year. I don't think the same can be said about the Broncos against the Patriots.

(EDIT: Not that it matters, there are posts of mine out there saying that Seattle would be a tough matchup for Denver even when the Broncos were tearing it up earlier in the year. I don't say this to profess great insight, just pointing out that it isn't hindsight on my part. :) )

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22 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by PaddyPat // Jan 23, 2016 - 12:00am

I was picking Seattle all the way. I have tended to underrate Manning a bit throughout his career, but I just really wasn't impressed that that Denver offense was as good as its numbers suggested--I thought the passing game had limited depth and variation, and I couldn't understand all season why teams were letting them put up the kind of numbers they were. Obviously, that perspective has some bias to it, but I wasn't surprised in the least that Seattle won, just by the margin of victory, and the only explanation I had for the betting was that people always go with the big number QB, often to their detriment.

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13 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by mbmxyz // Jan 22, 2016 - 7:50pm

Lee Evans did not drop the pass in the end zone.

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44 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by TXinsider // Jan 24, 2016 - 11:53am

Right. Simply, the pass was well defended by Moore.

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34 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Dave Bernreuther // Jan 23, 2016 - 2:42pm

I can't speak for others, but the reason I have very little confidence in Denver is that they're coached by Gary Kubiak. Kubiak against Belichick is just a colossal mismatch, and he's known for being stubborn and uncreative as well, making me think it likely that at least part of the offense's upcoming struggles against the Pats will be attributable to him, not execution or age.

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11 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by duh // Jan 22, 2016 - 6:59pm

It really is amazing to me how many folks seem to have the Patriots through this game and on to Soopy 50. They may win but geez I sure don't think it is going to be easy for them.

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14 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by anotherpatsfan // Jan 22, 2016 - 7:54pm

I think Pats win this game 8 of ten times at home. Think in Denver it's a 50-50 deal. Bronco's victory would not surprise me.

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18 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by dryheat // Jan 22, 2016 - 9:36pm

I'm not sure what bearing the last four years has on this matchup. Denver has a new offense, new defense, new quarterback, new coaching staff, etc.

Denver has a pretty good chance to win. I do think they should be slight underdogs.

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7 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Rick_and_Roll // Jan 22, 2016 - 4:38pm

A key for Denver to win is Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson getting consistent pressure from inside. I think if every Denver drive ends with a kick (PAT, FG, Punt) they have a great chance.

Thinking about things going full circle in the QB rivalry, it's ironic that Denver likely needs to challenge the officiating in terms of holding up the Patriot receivers at the line to get the pass rush time to get pressure, a 2015 version of the 2003 AFCG.

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35 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Dave Bernreuther // Jan 23, 2016 - 2:45pm

This is what I want to see. The 2003 Patriots approach. Beat the crap out of people at the line. Put a linebacker on Gronk just to hit him first and then let someone else cover the route. Grab and hold the hell out of Edelman if you can even get to him. Get pressure up the middle and stay wide on whichever side Edelman is on to maybe get a tip or pick. Etc.

And now watch, they'll roll out the 4 Tight End fun stuff they did in the first two weeks and nobody will be prepared for it, and someone we never even thought of will score two touchdowns...

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37 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Scott de B. // Jan 23, 2016 - 6:50pm

If only they didn't outlaw the 2003 Patriots approach after the Patriots won two Super Bowls with it...

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42 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Anon Ymous // Jan 23, 2016 - 11:00pm

I can't agree more. Von Miller and Ware are outstanding, but it is tough to beat the Patriots with outside pressure. Von Miller, in particular, is typically a no-show against NE.

Even in 2013 when NE limped into Denver, it was Pot Roast annihilating Wendell and Mankins that sunk the offense more than anything.

Denver hasn't slowed Edelman down yet, and I see no reason for that to change. But if Wolfe and Jackson can have their way with NE's green interior OL, then the Pats' yardage will be mostly empty calories.

If that doesn't happen, then I have a very hard time seeing Denver's DEs and secondary playing well enough to hold NE under 27 points. It really is the most important match up in the entire game.

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46 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Will Allen // Jan 24, 2016 - 1:09pm

Yeah, if the Broncos block at the level they usually have this year, it'll be brutally hard for them to reach 20 points. On the other hand, they have had some games where they have blocked competently, Schofield wasn't awful last week, and you could do a lot worse than a home underdog with a #1 defense.

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10 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by poplar cove // Jan 22, 2016 - 5:40pm

I think the big reason that New England has been so great over the years has been due in large part to their home field dominance and also by finding a way to win the turnover margin in most games.

In the Patriots last 13 non-Super Bowl post-season games they've only played just one of those games on the road, losing at Denver in 2013. New England has went 51-5 overall the last 8 years in the regular season at home. All that obviously means nothing here though with the game being played in Denver.

For those who are taking Denver +3.5 (buy the half point up to +3.5 if you have too IMO): New England has played a total of 12 playoff games away from home overall (including Super Bowls) in the Belichick/Brady era and they've won by more than 3 points in only 3 of those 12 games.

Root for Denver NOT to lose the turnover margin: If you took the last 33 road games that New England didn't end up winning the turnover battle in the game (meaning they finished with a 0 or even a negative margin), the Patriots have only won 6 of those 33 games by more than a field goal.

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17 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by RickD // Jan 22, 2016 - 9:14pm

Most of those stats don't matter in the slightest.

Sports fandom is great for the proliferation of unimportant stats.

Any stats based on these teams that go back more than three years are pretty much unimportant. Yet these are the kind of stats that the media just love to find.

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12 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Van Buren // Jan 22, 2016 - 7:38pm

There are a lot of numbers that indicate Denver is as good as, or better than, the Pats. There is also the fact that Manning now throws like an old Billy Kilmer, and it's hard to visualize them winning.

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15 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by mbmxyz // Jan 22, 2016 - 8:35pm

The 60s/70s - Packers, Raiders, Steelers, Dolphins, Chiefs, the Jets in 1968 - championship formula was strong defense (to limit opponent points), strong running game (to limit opponent access to the ball) and a few successful deep passes (to score some points). Save for the QB, Denver has the assets to implement this strategy. With Manning's lack of arm strength, he will have trouble completing a pass to the end zone from inside the red zone. But perhaps from a little farther out with more space for his receivers, he can hit a few semi-deep passes for scores. Against playoff teams, Denver was 5 and 2, while NE was 2 and 1. NE beat 5 or 6 teams pretty badly, while Denver only really dominated in their victory over Green Bay, which is sort of typical of successful teams built on the 60s/70s model. Denver should be close the entire game. Here in Boston, I am hoping for a NE victory, but expecting Manning to pull this one out.

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21 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by PaddyPat // Jan 22, 2016 - 11:58pm

Um... the game is a bit different from how it was back then. Honestly, it doesn't even look much like it used to back in 2000. The contact rules and roughness rules have just really transformed the win conditions.

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25 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by mbmxyz // Jan 23, 2016 - 4:03am

Not saying that Denver is a doppelganger of the 1974 Steelers. Am saying that Denver is following the '74 Steelers paradigm, The question will be whether the team is more similar to the those Steelers or the Minnesota Viking team that opposed them in the Super Bowl. This basically boils down to whether Terry Bradshaw or Joe Kapp is a better model of the current Peyton Manning. In throwing ability, at least, Joe Kapp is the more similar player, which gives NE a chance. In all other aspects of QB play, manning is superior to every QB from the 60s/70s.

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27 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Bobman // Jan 23, 2016 - 4:09am

Agreed, but I think we'd all agree that the QB is a lot more important today than in 1974. (I don't see Terry Bradshaw winning 4 SBs with any team in today's NFL. I think maybe 1.)

Maybe for a team with an otherworldy D and run game he isn't as vital (and mainly has to make good choices and avoid mistakes), but Den only has one of those items.

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30 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Jerry // Jan 23, 2016 - 10:15am

I don't see Terry Bradshaw winning 4 SBs with any team in today's NFL. I think maybe 1.

Give Bradshaw a coordinator radioing plays into his helmet, and the lack of a beating he and his receivers would now take, and it would be interesting. Especially if he had the quality of teammates he did in the '70s.

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32 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Steve B // Jan 23, 2016 - 1:41pm

Should be noted that Bradshaw was one of the few QBs of his era that called his own plays. One of the areas where Chuck Noll differed greatly from Paul Brown.

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28 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Raiderjoe // Jan 23, 2016 - 7:29am

J, _Kapp no5 in league anymore in 1974. Bikes quarterback was F. tarkenton super bowl 9.

sorry for nitpick

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16 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Will Allen // Jan 22, 2016 - 9:07pm

That '71 Vikings team was the most one sided team I've ever seen. They won a game against the Packers 3-0, when the Vikings had 85 total yards in offense, but the Vikings defense intercepted 3 of the Packers 11 pass attempts, including one with about a 90 yard return, which allowed for a field goal. I was a little kid, and I thought it was just a normal defensive struggle.

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19 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by hscer // Jan 22, 2016 - 10:01pm

Looks like just a blast: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/197111140min.htm

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23 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by SBM // Jan 23, 2016 - 2:43am

I've been trying to work out why the media, and many non-Denver fans are favouring the Pats so heavily. It may be due to the fact that Peyton isn't (physically) who he once was but the game is at Mile High where NE have struggled, the Denver D-Line is clearly superior to the NE O-line and NE appears to have more players who are dealing with injuries that will affect playing time. A strong offense definitely has a seductive effect on judgement but even last week against the Chiefs they beat a team by one score, at home, missing their best pass rusher and that couldn't manage the clock - that doesn't look like an offense as rampant as some people perceive them to be.

Like Scott (and I think a few comments above) said, if this game was in Foxboro then you can have the confidence that the Pats will win the game. When you factor in being on the road, the chasm in line quality (I know Brady has a quick release but they receivers won't get open as quickly against DEN DBs), and the difficulty of playing in this specific location, then I think DEN are the team to favour and I see them winning by a TD. I'm not convinced NE's run defense matches up well against DEN either even though DVOA has 9 places between them, I believe.

--------------------------------------------------------
Better to die on your feet than live on your knees

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26 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Bobman // Jan 23, 2016 - 4:05am

With Justin Houston out last week it looked like Brady could have knitted a sweater in the backfield had he chosen to. There were also a lot of bounces that went the Pats' way (loose balls, two failed INTs). Add in Andy Reid being Andy Reid at the end (and Smith taking two early 3Q timeouts that may have come in handy later)... yeah, a seven point win at home is kind of surprising. It certainly LOOKED more dominant than that, and probably was, but just seven points...? Sheesh.

By the same token, Den didn't look terribly dominant against the Steelers, "the team nobody wanted to face"(tm). It was a good matchup for Pitt, and they are a good team (despite missing a couple key components). Manning was generally accurate, but his passes wobbled. Instead of hitting a quarter at 15 yards, he now hits an area the size of a trash can lid--probably about average for NFL QBs, but a far cry from Manning of old. And the zip seems to be missing. Ergo all his INTs from earlier this year. If he IS as healthy as he says, compared to the past 14 months, well then....

Vegas needs a line for bettors, but I see it as about even. NE's superior special teams may spell the difference. Or one or two unusual bounces of the ball.

I think the media and general population gives Den so little chance because Brady is still Brady and Manning is an aging Billy Kilmer as someone said above. Plus NE has some very high profile injured guys back. That's the real obvious stuff and sways opinions. Nobody cares that the Denver RT seems to have turned his game around (credit: Ben Muth), but that might have as big an effect as anything, aside from Chandler Jones getting stoned and paranoid again and running around in the cold wearing only sweats.

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36 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Dave Bernreuther // Jan 23, 2016 - 2:49pm

Five failed INTs, if you buy what Cian was selling on Twitter.

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29 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Anon Ymous // Jan 23, 2016 - 9:27am

NE's offense scored 27 points in 22 minutes of possession and averaged over a field goal every time they touched the ball with only one drive starting in KC territory. They did this against a team playing every bit as well as Denver down the stretch who was allowing only ~12ppg during their winning streak.

If you want to point to a reason for NE's reasonably low scoring it was because the KC's offense kept converting 3rd downs and they dominated TOP. This doesn't reflect great on NE's defense, but this is an offense than DVOA considered the 6th best in the league (3rd weighted) whereas Denver is 17th by weighted. There is a 16% difference between the two even if you use the highest Denver figure and lowest KC.

You also have to understand that NE's defense regularly struggles against mobile QBs and offenses that effectively use misdirection. KC offered both. Despite this, it took a miracle 3rd down conversion and a drive at the end when NE was missing their top three LBs and were more than happy to concede the rest of clock for a single scoring drive.

Don't take my word for it, though, just look at DVOA, where NE's 55% VOA was higher than any other team's *DVOA*.

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33 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by PaddyPat // Jan 23, 2016 - 1:46pm

Honestly, I thought heading into last week that Seattle and KC were the two best teams in football. Weighted DVOA reflected that, and it seemed to stand up to the eye test. That NE beat KC soundly, not necessarily dominantly, but certainly comfortably, suggests that a level of poise and execution has returned with the (less) injured players that puts New England back on top. I think that was the message that many fans took from the game, and the reason for the betting line, more than anything else.

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43 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Cythammer // Jan 23, 2016 - 11:21pm

The thing is KC was seriously hampered by injuries. This especially held back their pass rush, which is crucial to slowing down a Tom Brady lead offense. Also of course NE had a bye week and was playing at home. An article on ESPN (http://espn.go.com/chalk/story/_/id/14632234/money-continues-pile-new-en...) tells us that Vegas is mostly refusing to move the line even as the general public dumps money on New England, and the sporting books that did move the line a half point promptly had the sharps jump in. This indicates that the general public is overrating the Patriots, even if they should still be favorites. To me personally a 3-point line does seem low, but I trust that Vegas knows way, way better than me (and everyone else who's thinking the same way I am).

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45 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by TomC // Jan 24, 2016 - 11:58am

I don't know about everyone else, but I'm picking the Pats to cover because I just don't see how Denver scores points. They will struggle to sustain drives (because of good D but also because of inaccurate passes, drops, and no running game), and they have no deep game with P. Manning at QB. New England on the other hand has demonstrated they can move the ball against excellent defenses (with scary pass rushes), both in last year's SB and last week against KC. The only way I see Denver winning is if they win the turnover battle by a large margin (which could happen, but it's not enough to move my fake money).

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38 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Otis Taylor89 // Jan 23, 2016 - 7:09pm

One item that hasn't been brought up is that NE was 2nd in sacks this season even though their schedule was heavily weighted towards mobile QBs, including the 3 in their division. When they have had a chance at stationary QBs, they have generally gotten the job done.

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39 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by bmay // Jan 23, 2016 - 8:22pm

It sounds like you're saying mobile QBs get sacked less. The numbers actually show the opposite:

http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2013/trying-improve-sack-...
http://www.footballstudyhall.com/2015/8/28/9217801/college-football-mobi...

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40 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by tuluse // Jan 23, 2016 - 8:40pm

What is impressive is that they faced only the 12th most pass attempts this year. FO has them in 2nd in ASR.

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41 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Anon Ymous // Jan 23, 2016 - 10:41pm

Whether they get sacked less across the league, it certainly seems to be the case for the Patriots, aside from that crazy game against Tyrod Taylor. The Pats generally play heavy contain and force those types of QBs to win from the pocket.

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47 Re: 2016 AFC Championship Preview

by Blackmallow // Jan 24, 2016 - 1:53pm

My prediction is:

Whichever team gets the less devastating in-game injury probably wins. This is my experience with watching the Patriots' playoff successes and failures in the Brady era.

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