1. Beat the blitz
The Broncos blitz as much as any team in the NFL and Bill Belichick confirmed that earlier this week at one of his press conferences. They blitz even more when they don't respect their opponents running game. Check out the Eagles game and the first meeting with the Patriots. Tom Brady didn't get sacked the first time they played but he got hit hard on virtually every pass attempt in the first half. He really took a lot of punishment in that game. Well, here we are three months later and the Patriots ground game is still struggling, so expect to see the Broncos stack the line of scrimmage and send pressure early and often. Denver faces two problems playing this way. One is they appear to tire out in the fourth quarter. Denver blitzes so much sometimes their pass rushers get tired late in games and they aren't as effective. This happened in the first meeting when Brady almost led the Patriots back. Look for New England to run a lot of crossing routes with their receivers and hit Kevin Faulk underneath to try and wear down the Broncos defense. The other negative with the Broncos blitzing is Brady is the smartest quarterback in the NFL. It's difficult to beat him using the same scheme twice in a row because he's so good at making adjustments. If the Broncos blitz a lot early like they're accustomed to doing, don't be surprised if the Patriots hit some big plays on them. Also, look for mismatches with Ben Watson on safety John Lynch. Lynch has been a great player over the years but he can be a liability in coverage and if he's singled up against Watson, the only thing Lynch will see is the back of No. 84's jersey as he's streaking towards the end zone.
2. Stop the Broncos running gameIt just doesn't get any simpler than this. Everything the Broncos do on offense is predicated off their running game. Teams that shut down the run against Denver – and that hasn't been very often – have beaten them. The Broncos ran for almost 200 yards in the first meeting but let's be honest, that game doesn't even count. The Patriots were playing without Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Ellis Hobbs had yet to enter the starting lineup. The Patriots gave up their only long run of the season in that game – a 68-yarder to Tatum Bell just before the half - that led to a touchdown and broke the contest wide open. This isn't the same New England defense. Bell and Mike Anderson both had great seasons on the ground but this is going to be their toughest test of the year. What we have here is one of the NFL's top rushing offenses against one of the top rush defenses. Whichever team wins this battle will most likely win the game. Jake Plummer is having his best season but if he can't rely on the running game and has to put it all on his shoulders, the Patriots will win. It's that simple.
3. Try and slow down Rod SmithIt's really amazing. Belichick's defense can stop virtually every player in the NFL not named Ricky Proehl or Rod Smith. In a press conference before the first game, Belichick joked Smith will probably thank him when he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame. Smith then showed Belichick knows what he's talking about by going out and catching six balls for 123 yards and a touchdown. In his last four games versus the Patriots, the 11-year veteran has 30 receptions for 573 yards and a score. There's good news and bad news for New England. The good news is Duane Starks won't be covering Smith this time. The bad news is Starks wasn't covering him the three games before that when he burnt the Pats. If the Patriots shut down the Broncos running game, Smith becomes the key. Ashley Lelie and Jeb Putzier are decent options in the passing game but neither of those guys is going to be the deciding factor in the game. The Patriots won't completely stop Smith but as long as they can control him and make Plummer look elsewhere, they should be in good shape.
4. More Kevin Faulk
It's now been 17 games and whether it's because of injury or other factors, Corey Dillon just isn't getting the job done at running back. We all see it and we all saw what Faulk did when he was given a chance to run the football last week. The most impressive part of Faulk's performance is most of his 51 yards came right up the middle. Coming into the game that was supposed to be the Jaguars strength on defense but Faulk gashed them with quick hitters. Faulk isn't the kind of back who can carry the ball 20-25 times over a 16-game season but that's not what he needs to do. Actually, being injured gives Faulk an advantage. He's fresh and hasn't taken many hits this season. The Patriots have proven in the past they don't need much of a running game to win in the postseason but they have to run the ball a little bit to keep defenses honest. I don't think Dillon can do that right now. To be honest, I think opposing defenses want to see him in the game because they know he can't hurt them like he has in the past. The most disheartening thing about the Jacksonville game was even late in the fourth quarter when the Jaguars had mailed it in, Dillon still couldn't do anything on the ground. If Faulk can break some of those quick hitters again this week, it will make the Broncos think twice about blitzing so much and help keep the Patriots offense balanced. If New England can't run the ball at all and Brady has to throw it 40 times, he's going to get killed. It's time to give the keys to the running game to Faulk. At least make a copy of the key and give him the replica. Whether Dillon has been injured or he's just slowing down, we'll know the answer to that question next season. The Patriots offense is at its best right now when they spread defenses out and use Faulk in the backfield. I would expect to see more of that on Saturday night.
5. Let's get physicalIf you like physical football, this is your kind of game. This is going to be one hard-hitting, physical football game not for the faint of heart. Both of these teams will be hurting come Sunday morning. That plays right into the Patriots hands because they love those kinds of games. Early in the year it was shocking to watch teams push the Patriots around but Belichick and his great coaching staff fixed whatever problems they were having and now this team is as tough as any in the league. New England took a physical Jacksonville team and all but made them give up. If that game were a boxing match it would have been an eighth round TKO. Bruschi is going to play and they really need him in this contest. Monty Beisel performed well last week but the Broncos running game is a different animal and Bruschi has to be on the field. Seymour gets all the accolades – and deservingly so - but over the past month of the season, Vince Wilfork has been an absolute beast. If you are talking about the last six games alone, it can be argued Wilfork has been the Patriots MVP. The guy is living in the opponent's backfield. Whatever Belichick did to light a fire under Wilfork worked because he's been nothing short of dominating. This game is going to come down to the trenches. If the Patriots are the more physical team Saturday night against a very tough Broncos squad, they'll be heading to their third straight AFC Championship Game. Then the fun really begins.
NotesIn a conference call with the Boston media on Tuesday, Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said he expects to see a motivated Patriots team this Saturday night. "They are playing very well against the run and getting a couple of guys back healthy," Plummer said. "They were pretty injured when we played them, so we know that their confidence coming in here is high when it comes to stopping the run. We had a couple of big plays against them but those happen in some games and don't in some other games. So we know they're going to come in with very high confidence level and they're playing really well. They're probably playing just as good as any other team in the league and with their drive and desire to do something in history that has never been done, we know it's going to be a tough one."…The Patriots have scored a touchdown 100 percent of the time this season when they've had a first-and-goal from the five-yard line or closer…The Patriots had 62 pass plays in 2005 that netted 20 yards or more. That ranked second in the NFL to the Arizona Cardinals who ended up with 63.