The second biggest day of the NFL season is almost here. On Sunday, we will see the four best teams duke it out for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Patriots O-Line containing Broncos pass rush
The Broncos come into the AFC championship with the most sacks in the NFL. The dominant pairing of Von Miller and Demarcus Ware have combined for 19.5 sacks on the season. Denver also has four players with 4.5 or more sacks on the season.
This does not bode well for Tom Brady and company. Though Brady always finds a away to work his magic, it will come at a price. The Patriots rank 17th in pass protection this season (Football Insiders). As you can tell by just looking at him (see below), he’s not much of a threat on the ground. Brady is smart enough to know when to get rid of the ball and not force things. The battle in the trenches could be one that determines the outcome of the game.
Stopping Slowing down Rob Gronkowski
Let’s be honest, there is no way to truly stop Gronk. His ability to line up all over the field is what makes him so dangerous. He’s too big for corners to cover and is too quick for linebackers. The Broncos best option might be to take a time machine to 2008 and bring Ed Reed back with them.
Gronkowski routes stay outside the hash for most of the game. Where he does most of his damage is on seam routes off of play-action. Though the Patriots do not have much of a rushing attack this year thanks to many injuries, there still has to be a level of respect there, especially on first downs. If Stephen Jackson can get going even in the slightest, look for Gronk over the middle all game.
Another big part of Gronkowski’s route tree is the short out-routes that allow him to get running room in open field. For a big guy, he can get to full speed quickly. Trying to tackle him in open field looks about as difficult running through a wall.
The last time these teams met in November, Gronk had 88 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Cam Newton vs. Cardinals Secondary
This is the one match-up I am most excited to watch. NFL fans are in for a treat as the most dynamic quarterback in the league takes one of the best secondary in the league.
I am extremely disappointed in Tyrann Mathieu not being able to play due to injury. I think the first-time Pro Bowler could be a huge difference maker in this game. Mathieu would be able to stick with Greg Olsen despite size disparity.
Despite the loss of Mathieu, the Cardinals still have arguably the best corner in all of the league in Patrick Peterson. Peterson basically spends his time running around the field while watching the ball go the other way. No one is throwing the ball his way this season and he is consistently shutting down some of the best receivers in football. Peterson has only given up one touchdown this year. That one touchdown was on a play where a mistake in coverage allowed Bears receiver Josh Bellamy to go unnoticed and score from 48 yards out.
Though Mathieu and Peterson get most of the attention, it takes more than two players to make a secondary. Tony Jefferson, Rashad Johnson, and Justin Bethel (Mathieu’s replacement) have played exceptional this season and have helped the Cardinals claim the fourth best secondary in the league.
It will be interesting to see where Peterson lines up every play. Ted Ginn Jr. is the Panthers biggest deep threat, but Greg Olsen has been the best receiver for them all season. I cannot imagine that Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians would have Peterson line up over Olsen, but it’s the playoffs, so who knows.