Saturday, January 23, 2016

Your AFC Championship Primer

Have you heard? Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are playing in this game!
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Eight down, three to go.

Jeremy extended his lead in Round 2. Both Jeremy and Joe picked all four winners correctly, but Jeremy had a Pittsburgh cover over Denver, while Joe did not. Jeremy stands 8-0 straight up, 5-3 against the spread, leading Joe's 7-1 straight up, 3-5 against the spread (we both had Arizona winning and covering against Green Bay. They did win, but they didn't cover their seven-point spread).

Both conferences have played out exactly the same. All four road teams won in Round 1, and all four home teams won in Round 2, leaving us with the top two seeds in each conference squaring off. Where the conferences differ is the AFC matchup features the longest-tenured rivalry in pro football.

The Brady-Manning Opus is well-tread ground (Joe went into greater detail about them two years ago, and wrote a piece on the greatest quarterback seasons in NFL history in honor of that Brady-Manning AFC title game), so let's not waste any breath regurgitating it.

Suffice it to say, they are the two best quarterbacks of their generation, and when they face off against each other, the games are usually fairly entertaining. Both favorites this week are giving exactly three points - fundamentally, the purest gambling line that exists - but we'll start here with the aforementioned AFC contest.

New England at Denver (3:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Patriots by 3.5
Current Line: Patriots by 3

By The Numbers:

New England: 
Record: 12-4 Overall, 5-3 Away; 7-6-3 Against The Spread; 3-5 Away
Average Score: 29.1 (3rd) - 19.7 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +9.4 (3rd); 11.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +15.4% Offense (5th); -3.4% Defense (12th); +3.9% Special Teams (5th); +22.6% Overall (6th)

Record: 12-4 Overall; 6-2 Home; 8-6-2 Against The Spread; 3-5 Home
Average Score: 22.2 (19th) - 18.5 (4th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.7 (10th); 9.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -8.8% Offense (25th); -25.8% Defense (1st); +0.7% Special Teams (14th); +17.7% Overall (8th) 

Hidden Points: Rust

Last week, the hidden points for both New England and Denver were related to health. New England had more than a half-dozen key players returning to the lineup for the first time in weeks, while Denver, for most of the week, was holding tight to their vest who would be starting under center.

Both New England and Denver prevailed, and both New England and Denver saw their injury-questioned players produce reasonably well. But none among them lit the world on fire.

Julian Edelman, perhaps the Patriots' most versatile receiver, seemed out-of-sync with Tom Brady for much of the divisional round game. He finished with 10 catches for 100 yards (because apparently the Patriots like nice, round numbers), but also had four dropped passes which submarined a few early drives.

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning lacked substantial zip on his passes, didn't seem overly interested in throwing the ball downfield unless he absolutely had to, and finished with a relatively pedestrian line of 21-for-37 for 222 yards, and no touchdowns. Denver gained just 324 yards, averaged just 4.6 yards per play, and went 3-for-15 on third downs. If not for a well-timed turnover, their offense might not have had enough to win the game.

What remains to be seen is whether or not key players on each side can shake the rust and return to All-Pro form. Both Edelman and Manning looked much better as their respective games went on, so perhaps that's an optimistic sign for each of them. These two players will go a long way towards deciding who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl, and it's likely that whoever performs better will be the difference.


Hidden Points: Don't Give it Away

I'm going to cop-out and again say "turnovers" will be key this week (revolutionary, I know), but hear me out, because this seems like one area where New England could potentially run away with the game.

First of all, New England doesn't turn the ball over, like, at all. The Patriots led the league with just 14 turnovers all season. That's absurd, and only seven of those came on Tom Brady interceptions.

The Broncos, meanwhile, are third in the league with 31 turnovers on the year, behind only Tennessee and Dallas who tied for first with 33. In fact, there were only seven teams in football with 30 turnovers or more, and Denver is the only one to make the playoffs (Dallas, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cleveland and Indianapolis… Not so much).

Basically, the Broncos were elite when it came to giving away the football, but they were in a class of their own for throwing interceptions when Peyton Manning was under center, as he will be Sunday.

In Manning's nine starts this year, he threw a staggering 17 interceptions (nearly two per game), and even the fact that the Broncos only lost ONE fumble in those nine games (thanks to some VERY good luck) couldn't stop Denver from averaging a healthy two giveaways per game, and post a -2 in the Takeaway/Giveaway department.

Without Manning, the Broncos threw just five interceptions in seven starts by Brock Osweiler (less than one per game). Now, when you add in the fact that Denver's fumble recovery luck came around (the Broncos lost seven fumbles in those seven games), you get 12 turnovers (still less per game than before), but Denver posted an identical -2 in the turnover department.

Basically, it seemed like the Broncos might be heading toward Turnover-geddon against the Steelers, what with their fumbles on the rise, their defensive takeaways on the decline and Manning back at the helm. But actually, the opposite happened, as Denver didn't turn the ball over once, and actually turned a critical Pittsburgh fumble into the game-winning score.

Turnovers always loom large, but they very well could be the difference between Denver winning this game, or losing by three or more touchdowns. So, which Broncos offense shows up Sunday?


Players to Watch (NE): Chandler Jones and the rest of the New England pass rush

Last week, Alex Smith dropped back to pass 50 times. He was sacked just once. For New England backers, this is disconcerting.

Perhaps it can be explained away by the fact that Smith is perhaps the most underratedly mobile quarterbacs in the league, and by nature is hard to bring down. But it's also possible that the New England pass rush is disappearing at the worst possible time.

In a lot of ways, a pass rush in football is like a bullpen is baseball. In order to have a good one, you need a select group of dynamite talents. Denver has two of them in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. New England, on the other hand, has the football pass rush equivalent of a bullpen by committee. They were second in the league in sacks with 49, the strength of their pass rush was cumulative, not singular. Chandler Jones finished fifth in the league in sacks, with 12.5, but six other players pitched in with at least three more of their own. Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Akiem Hicks, and Malcolm Brown combined for 20.5 sacks on the defensive line, and Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower contributed nine more from the linebacker ranks.

A disappearing pass rush was a key factor in New England's 2-4 stumble to end the season. In their four losses over the last six weeks, the New England defense managed just six sacks (1.5 per game, for those liberal arts majors out there). By comparison, in their 12 wins, they accrued 43 sacks (3.6 per game).

Peyton Manning, obviously, is not as mobile as Alex Smith is. If the New England pass rush gets home, history suggests that their defense will have enough bite to keep Denver in check. But if Manning is able to stand in the pocket and deliver, the Broncos will be able to move the ball. Denver's success will be based largely on how well they protect Manning, so the Patriots need to hope for a better showing from their defensive front than they saw last week.


Players to Watch (DEN): Peyton Manning, C.J. Anderson
Guys, I know it's crazy, but how well Peyton Manning plays may influence the outcome of this game. It seems almost too obvious to say that, but I feel like some people are just totally dismissing Manning's potential contributions (good or bad) and focusing on Denver's defense.

While the Broncos D may have to carry the day in the Mile High City, it would be foolish not to think that Peyton Manning will heavily affect this game. If he doesn't turn the ball over (see above), manages the game decently well and makes a few opportunistic plays at the end (like he did last week against the Steelers), Denver just might be able to steal this thing.

If he tries to do too much, and reverts to the turnover machine he was early in the season, the Patriots should run away with it.

But Manning may not have to carry the offense if C.J. Anderson can get going. The Broncos clearly want to play ball control, and Anderson has proved to be a much better option than Ronnie Hillman in recent weeks.

Anderson doesn't have to be other-worldly (a stat line of 20 carries for 80-something yards and a touchdown should suffice), but if he can help them move the chains against a Jerod Mayo-less Patriots front, it will give Denver a chance to pull off the upset.


The Picks:

New England 28, Denver 16

After last week's games, it just seems like New England is the better team. The Pittsburgh defense was able to limit every aspect of Denver's attack, and New England has a better defense than Pittsburgh does. The Pittsburgh offense was able to move the ball effectively with no running game and without their best wide receiver, and New England, finally healthy, has a better offense than Pittsburgh does. If not for Fitzgerald Toussaint's fumble, Pittsburgh might have won the game outright. New England doesn't turn the ball over.

These two teams met back at the end of November, and it was as close as a game has been all season for either team. But the trends indicate that Denver might have been luckier than they were good. There were three fumbles in the game, and Denver recovered all of them. Over the preceding five weeks, New England had surrendered just 63 rushing yards per game. Denver mustered 179 (the worst outing of New England's season) against a banged-up Patriots' defense. New England's offense had trouble moving the ball without Julian Edelman OR Danny Amendola (OR Rob Gronkowski after he left with his knee injury), and James White had not been fully integrated into the offense yet.

With a healthier team, the scales should tip in the favor of New England. Edelman, Amendola, and Gronkowski all looked perfectly fine physically last week, and the yips should be gone. Defensively, Devin McCourty is back to police the middle of the field, and a re-awakened pass rush (hopefully) should be able to attack Peyton Manning against a weak offensive line.

Simply put, as the teams are currently constituted, I trust the Patriots to be able to move the ball and play defense better than Denver. So the Patriots will win the AFC Championship.


New England 24, Denver 19

While I could so this game turning into a blowout in New England's favor (if Denver can't run the ball or Peyton Manning forces things), I think Denver's defense will keep it around, and I have to believe the Broncos will be able to move the ball a little bit.

But, who do I trust more RIGHT NOW to protect the football and finish drives in the red zone? That would be Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and the suddenly healthy Patriots. I'm not totally buying into the "Denver has no chance" narrative, but the Patriots are a better team in better shape at the best possible time.


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