Oddsmakers and a plethora of experts have already pegged the New England Patriots to beat the Denver Broncos in Sunday’s AFC Championship from Mile High, putting quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belchick in position to claim back-to-back Super Bowl titles for the first time since 2005.
Despite mounting injuries, including the most recent addition of linebacker Jerod Mayo to the injured reserve list, New England’s thwarted nearly all comers this season — largely thanks to Brady’s calculated and efficient offense and a young, talented defense that ranked No. 10 in the league with 19.7 points allowed per game. Furthermore, the Patriots' pass rush was behind only Denver, with 49 sacks this season.
The stats favor New England, but there are other reasons the Patriots have an edge in this high-profile contest. Here’s three reasons for why the Patriots will prevail over the Broncos and head to Santa Clara, California, for Super Bowl 50.
A Resilient And Healthier Offensive Line
Of the 19 players New England sent to the injured reserve this season, two (Ryan Wendell and Nate Solder) were part of the offensive line, which forced Belichick to turn to his rookies for depth. First-year center David Andrews let up a mere one and a half sacks over 14 games, 11 starts, and guard Tre’ Jackson surrendered just one sack in 13 games and nine starts.
There was also rookie left guard Shaq Mason, who in tandem with left tackle Marcus Cannon gave up a mere four and a half sacks in 18 combined starts. Then throw in last week’s return of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who led New England with six and a half sacks allowed over 14 games and 13 starts, as well as the five sacks allowed between right guard Josh Kline and center Bryan Stork, and the Patriots have a solid and rather deep group to face Denver’s top-rated pass rush.
But the Broncos sack artists have been slipping for quite some time. Whether that’s due to the wear and tear of a full season or opposing offenses figuring out how to manage their scheme remains unclear.
The Denver defense has noticeably slipped since Week 8. In the first six games of the regular season, the Broncos tallied 26 of their 52 total sacks on the year, and over the final 10 games the Broncos racked up the last 26 and notched more than three just once (Week 13 with 4.0), which significantly brought their pace down to the league-wide average of 37.0 sacks.
The Patriots line looked masterful against the Chiefs' No. 4-ranked pass rush, allowing zero sacks, and Brady was hit just once.
Peyton Manning’s Limitations
To put it simply, no one really knows what to expect from Manning Sunday. The 39-year-old hasn’t thrown a touchdown since Week 9 of the regular season, is sporting the highest interception rate of his career (5.1 picks per pass and he finished second in the league with 17 total picks despite missing six games), and his longest completion in the last three games is 34 yards. Yet, he performed well against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And it’s not like Denver owns a perfectly humming offense. The Broncos put up a third down conversion rate of 35.3, No. 25 in the league, and their rushing attack finished No. 17 overall with 107.4 yards per game. There’s too much worry about Manning’s abilities and arm strength, as well as the pieces around him. Broncos receivers were dropping passes in what sometimes looked like a very confused offense.
Protecting The Football
Manning could very well give the ball away on several occasions Sunday, but don’t expect the same from Brady or the rest of New England’s offense.
The Patriots were tops in the NFL with only 14 total turnovers committed throughout the regular season and just three in the last four games. Overall, New England’s passing attack tossed just seven total interceptions, tied for best in the league, and the ground game was second with only seven fumbles.
Turnovers, or lack thereof, typically decide any NFL game, but they can be particularly important in the postseason. And New England’s the best in the league when it comes to protecting and keeping possession.