WHILE HE IS KNOWN FOR varying his defensive schemes, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has gone mostly with straight man-to-man this season, eschewing the blitz in order to keep a safety over the top and a free defender underneath. He won't change that this week against quick-striking Peyton Manning.
But even with extra bodies in coverage, it will be tough to play man against a passing attack loaded with pick routes and crossing patterns. When the two teams met in Week 12 (a 34--31 New England win in OT), the Pats used an assortment of hybrid coverage wrinkles, as well as some advantageous gales at Gillette Stadium, to slow down Manning. It worked (Manning had a rating of 70.4 and only 150 passing yards), but they were gouged for 280 yards on the ground. This time defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, plus new starter Sealver Siliga, must be stronger against Denver's point-of-attack double teams.
On the other hand the Broncos' run defense will face its own challenge in 250-pound LeGarrette Blount, who has racked up 355 yards and six TDs in his last two games. Led by tackle Terrance Knighton, Denver stifled the white-hot Chargers last week, but Blount runs—plows, really—behind a man-blocking front that's particularly mobile and voracious on the left side, where perennial Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and svelte tackle Nate Solder ply their trade.
Then there's Denver's pass defense, which, like New England's, has relied largely on man coverage, only with more pressure concepts up front. The Broncos have been vulnerable late in games when they have faced talented QBs playing catch-up. On Sunday, Philip Rivers sliced them for 197 yards in the second half. In Week 5, Tony Romo had 284 of his 506 yards after the break. And after halftime of that Week 12 meeting, Tom Brady added 263.
With outside linebacker Von Miller sidelined (right ACL), and assuming that ends Malik Jackson and Shaun Phillips aren't able to abuse New England's line the way they did San Diego's shakier front five, the Broncos will struggle to generate pressure. Given Brady's snap decision making, blitzing could be fruitless, so expect Denver to call for crowded coverage behind a three-man rush. This game will come down to whether the Broncos' pass defenders—particularly Champ Bailey, whose role becomes even more crucial after cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL—can survive against New England's crafty stack releases and motion concepts.
New England's D is improving, and Denver's is slightly declining. While Brady has fewer weapons than Manning, the three-time Super Bowl champ still has what he needs to score quickly and, more important, control the ball. Patriots 34, Broncos 28
Rookie Patriots OLB Jamie Collins, a second-rounder, has been a work in progress, but in the divisional round he flashed his many talents: He's a fast-improving pass rusher, a physical block stoner, an adaptable run chaser and an uncommonly fluid cover artist. On Sunday he'll be counted on to combat RB Knowshon Moreno and TE Julius Thomas.
Demaryius Thomas is Denver's most lethal downfield weapon and its best asset on receiver screens—but he can't afford to struggle against willowy Pats CB Aqib Talib the way he did in the Week 12 loss. In the Broncos' 14 wins this season Thomas averaged six catches and 94 yards. In their three losses: just four receptions and 56 yards.
TOM DIPACE (COLLINS)
DUSTIN BRADFORD/GETTY IMAGES (THOMAS)