Wes Welker

Manning, Brady to meet in AFC championship game

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DENVER — The last time Tom Brady and the New England Patriots came to Denver, Peyton Manning watched the game on television from inside the locker room.

Not next Sunday, though. The Broncos quarterback will take in his customary spot in the huddle.

Manning meets Brady for a 17th time – with a trip to Super Bowl 50 at stake.

Perhaps it’s only fitting these two quarterbacks meet in the AFC title game, since Manning didn’t get to suit up against New England on Nov. 29 because of a foot injury. That game was a thriller, too, with Brock Osweiler leading the Broncos to a 30-24 overtime victory.

Manning’s foot is healed – at least as healed as it’s going to get for now – and he guided the Broncos to a 23-16 win over Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Brady is still vintage Brady, passing, bootlegging and QB sneaking the Super Bowl champion Patriots past the Chiefs on Saturday and into the AFC title game for a fifth straight season.

Brady’s Patriots opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite over Manning’s Broncos.

Manning didn’t want to start reflecting on the rivalry with Brady right away. “We’ll deal with that on Wednesday,” he said.

Manning is now 12-13 in the playoffs over his career. This one, though, possibly means a little more, given his comeback from a foot ailment that sidelined him for six weeks.

“It’s been a unique season, a lot of new things have happened this season, kind of like tonight,” said Manning, who replaced Osweiler in the season finale, leading the Broncos to a win over San Diego to secure the No. 1 seed. “We stayed patient tonight. We never really got frustrated and that served us well tonight and it served me well this season.”

Denver surrendered 339 yards passing to Roethlisberger, who entered the game with a sore shoulder. The challenge doesn’t get any easier.

Brady has long gotten the better of Manning, who is 5-11 lifetime against his counterpart, but 2-2 in the playoffs, including a win two years ago in this stadium.

“I’m honored to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to playing next week in the AFC championship,” Manning said.

But this is hardly the same Manning anymore. He doesn’t rely on his arm nearly as much as his ability to decipher schemes. He also leans heavily on the running game.

And Denver’s top-ranked defense, too.

“Our defense is guiding us. Let’s make that clear. They played great all season,” Manning said. “They were dominant today against a high-powered offense.”

Manning and Brady were paired on this stage following the 2013 season, when the Broncos held on for a 26-16 to advance to the Super Bowl.

It was a game that may be best remembered for a hit by Wes Welker on Aqib Talib, which knocked the then-Patriots cornerback out of the game and opened up things for Manning, who threw for 400 yards that afternoon.

Talib is with the Broncos now and a big reason for the success of the defense.

“We’ve had a lot of different players contribute to our success when we’ve been successful,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “I told them it would take them all today. It sure did. It will continue to take all of us as we move forward.”

Brady has one of his security blankets back in Julian Edelman, who returned from a broken foot on Saturday to help the Patriots beat Kansas City. Of course, Brady also has tight end Rob Gronkowski.

“They’re one of the best teams in the AFC,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “Let’s go out and play and see who wants the Super Bowl.

 

Missing in action: Can Patriots replace Julian Edelman?

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Julian Edelman immediately became Tom Brady’s favorite receiver when Wes Welker left New England. He led all Patriots receivers in catches in 2013 and 2014, highlighted by catching the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIX. He is also out for likely the rest of the regular season, so New England has to try to continue their undefeated ways without him. Can they?

Edelman’s Role in the New England Offense

Julian Edelman was largely a short-area receiver for New England this season. Over half of his targets came no more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was especially popular on passes beyond the line of scrimmage but no more than five yards downfield. Those passes are sometimes designed to create yards-after-catch opportunities. Sometimes, they involved finding a soft spot in zone coverages. In others, they relied on separation in tight spaces.

One place Edelman didn’t factor that much was in New England’s deep-passing game. Brady struggled to connect with him more than 15 yards downfield, and Edelman was New England’s eighth-most valuable receiver on deep passes by Football Outsiders’ numbers when he went down. Brady has already found Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list, on more deep completions than he did Edelman.

Though deep passes were not his forte, Edelman was so helpful to Brady because he could work all areas of the field. He lined up in the slot or outside on either the left or the right and ran both inside- and outside-breaking routes with success. This versatility is what made him so valuable.

New England’s Depleted Passing Targets

Like many teams, the Patriots often throw many of their passes to a small number of players. In 2013, only Edelman had more than 54 catches. Last year, just four players had more than 27 catches. This year, again just four players have at least 18 catches. Two of them are now injured. Edelman seems likely to return at some point, but running back Dion Lewis tore his ACL and is out for the season. Brady has just two high-volume targets left.

There are several silver linings to this story. First, Brady still has Rob Gronkowski, the most valuable receiving tight end in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Second, we have seen great quarterbacks with just two volume receivers before. Just look at Aaron Rodgers last year, when he threw half his passes to Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Third, the cumulative season totals underrate the return of LaFell, whose improved performance coincided with the offense’s overall improvement after early-season struggles last year.

A Ready-Made Replacement, If and As Long As He Is Available

The fourth silver lining for New England and Brady is the other remaining target, Danny Amendola. Edelman’s production took off when Wes Welker left, but Amendola drew the big free agent contract presumably to do that exact job.

Amendola basically fits the Edelman mold to a tee. He does not have the same numbers, but his overall statistical profile is very much the same. An even bigger share of his targets come no more than five yards downfield, and he plays both the left and right sides and runs both inside- and outside-breaking routes. Importantly, Amendola is in his third season in New England. He might not have the same intuitive understanding Edelman did with Brady, but they have some rapport.

One downside of Amendola is he has a significant injury history. He played every game just twice in six seasons. He filled in the Edelman role admirably in the Bills game, to the tune of nine catches on 12 targets for 119 yards, but came out of it with a knee injury. That leads into the biggest concerns.

Where Edelman’s Absence Could Hurt

Early reports on Amendola’s injury said he was not expected to miss significant time. That is particularly important because there is no other player on the roster who could be expected to fill that role successfully. LaFell and Aaron Dobson are both outside receivers who complement the Edelman/Amendola role. In-season acquisition Keshawn Martin fits the physical prototype, but he struggled to find the field in Houston or succeed when he was there. Undrafted rookie Chris Harper spent most of the season on the practice squad. Neither is likely match Amendola’s chemistry with Brady, let alone that of Edelman.

The Patriots’ offensive line woes make that chemistry particularly important. Brady spent most of his career as one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric, he ranked in the top ten least-sacked passers every full season from 2004 to 2014 — but not 2015. New England currently ranks 22nd by ASR. That puts added importance on the safety-valve receiver. Even if many of those short passes are not very productive –and they were not for Edelman, or Amendola, or even Brady in general — they can be very important in key situations and are better than just taking a sack.

That is the real downside, if the Patriots are forced to rely on Martin, Harper, or even a player like tight end Scott Chandler: the pressure will get to Brady and he will either have to force passes to LaFell or Gronkowski or take sacks. Cincinnati and Denver’s struggles give the Patriots the inside track to a bye and home-field advantage. Those same struggles, though, show the thin line between winning and losing in the NFL, and New England’s potential downside.