Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 1: Patriots Enter Championship Sunday Fully Loaded...For A Change

Rob Gronkowski is healthy for the title game for the first time in his career.  Is he the X-factor to win it all?
What a difference a year makes.

Almost a calendar year to the day since dropping an ugly 26-16 decision to the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots enter the 2014 edition of the conference title game almost an entirely different team...

...and not because of different personnel, though there have been a couple of positions that have undergone a significant upgrade, but because of the availability of the personnel.

The Broncos offense gashed the Patriots' defense for over 500 total yards, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning throwing at will to his set of Thomases, with wide receiver Demaryus going 134 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions and tight end Julius catching eight for 85 yards, while slot receiver Wes Welker took out then-Patriots' version of a shut-down corner in Aqib Talib, a blindside shot to his quad that rendered Talib a pedestrian.

Still the New England defense rose to the occasion time and again, bending plenty but breaking seldom, yielding just two touchdowns to the powerful Broncos' offense, stifling them in the red zone and forcing Denver to kick four field goals - and all of this while missing names like Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and, early in the second quarter, Talib.
Jonas Gray ran wild in November...since, not so much.

But the solid work of the patched together defense all went for naught because the Patriots' offense was even more destitute.

New England entered that title match with just one healthy starting pass catcher in Julian Edelman, with names like Rob Gronkowski and Kenbrell Thompkins replaced by Michael Hoomanawanui and emergency signing Austin Collie, respectively.  Aaron Dobson tried to go with a broken bone in his foot, and Danny Amendola was essentially useless with a completely torn adductor muscle...

...prompting Denver coach John Fox to implement a game plan that called for his defense to stuff the box to stop the previously stout New England power running game and daring quarterback Tom Brady to beat them throwing to his walking wounded receiving corps.

As a result, the Denver front seven completely overwhelmed the New England offensive line and shut down the middle of the field, making it possible for the pass rush to pin their ears back and come after Brady, who took a savage beating - but still, the Patriots made it a game in the fourth quarter, scoring twice as the Broncos backed off a bit once they had a two-score lead.

New England lost the chance to meet Seattle in the Super Bowl simply because they were undermanned, and easily rendered one-dimensional by a Broncos' team that still couldn't put them away despite their obvious handicap, the same team that was exposed by the Seahawks two weeks later at MetLife Stadium - and pretty much the same team that had their heads handed to them by the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday in the 2014 Divisional round.

Fast forward to this Sunday night, when the Patriots will this time be hosting the AFC Championship Game with all pass catchers present and accounted for, and a defense far superior to the one that valiantly attempted to keep their team in the game last season.

Edelman has had another monster season, teaming with free agent signee Brandon LaFell and a finally healthy Amendola to form the genesis of a high-speed, low-drag pass catching entity - and when adding the All Pro talent of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots sport the best pass catching entity that they've been able to field in the playoffs for half a decade.

What this means is that the Patriots enter their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game healthier than they were in any of the previous three, with a full compliment of receivers, a backfield loaded with power and a defense that rivals any that the Patriots have fielded in any season of their dynastic decade-and-a-half run.

Needless to say, as long as the Patriots don't make themselves one-dimensional on offense, they should be headed to Arizona to take on the winner of the NFC Championship game in the Super Bowl.

But that certainly doesn't mean that the Colts are going to be content being a speedbump on the road to Arizona, as they present their own set of challenges to the Patriots - mostly in the way that they matchup on offense against New England's defense, the front seven in particular, and could make life very tough on the Patriots' stoppers simply by building upon what they did to get to this point.

The Colts hosted the Patriots back in mid-November, getting a New England team that was just starting to hit their stride on offense, and was unknowingly about to embark on a remarkable defensive journey that that made them one of the best second half defensive team in all of football.

Things have cooled a bit on offense since their epic mid-season juggernaut, and that, combined with the Colts getting back some big defensive players that were missing the first go-around, promises that Indianapolis will put up a far better fight on defense than they did in their 42-20 loss...

...and that, coupled with the fact that the Patriots on defense still haven't figured out how to effectively cover a tight end, nor the fact that they haven't been able to generate a pass rush from the edges means that this is a similar group to the one the Colts faced two months ago, but this time Indianapolis has discovered a running game to go along with their terrific and uber-ambulatory quarterback Andrew Luck.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  The biggest storyline right now is that the Patriots are healthy, as are the Colts, which sets us up nicely to discuss the Patriots' offense vs the Colts' defense in our next installment...

This is the first installment of a four-part series leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Foxborough.  Part 2 will focus on the Patriots' offense, Part 3 on their defense and Part 4 will delve into gameday intrigue...

No comments:

Post a Comment