01/16/2014 04:16 PM
Here's a conservative prediction: If Peyton Manning plays two more full NFL seasons, he'll surpass Brett Favre for the most passing yards in NFL history (he's roughly 7,000 shy of the mark as of now).
Tom Brady is already the NFL's all-time leader in postseason passing yards with more than 6,000.
And yet, when the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, all eyes will be on the rushing offenses.
For context, it was in Week 12 that the Broncos rushed for 280 yards against the Patriots, which wasn't quite enough to earn a victory but reinforced that New England's run defense was in the midst of what was a largely rough regular season.
For more context, consider this: Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount has eight rushing touchdowns over the past three games, more than five teams had all season.
Each team has emphasized throughout the week that the previous matchup will have no bearing on Sunday's showdown, but it does help us focus through a lens that is likely to play a big part in the rematch Sunday.
Those 280 rushing yards allowed are an immense total, even if the Broncos accomplished it in nearly five full quarters (the winning kick in overtime came with less than two minutes to go, and the Broncos rushed for 76 overtime yards).
The run defense has been an area of limitation for the Patriots throughout the season, as New England was without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly for most of it. The case can be made for that trio being the three most critical run-stoppers on the team.
Another run-stuffer, linebacker Brandon Spikes, is now on injured reserve, but the Patriots run defense has shown some signs of improvement since the Denver game.
From a personnel standpoint, the most critical adjustment has been an increased reliance on Sealver Siliga, a wide-bodied 23-year-old who has started five straight games. Siliga fits the Patriots' mold of an interior defensive lineman with the strength through his hips and core to not give ground at the line of scrimmage while locking out his arms and absorbing double-teams. That frees up space for the Patriots' linebackers to run free and stay off guards and second-level blockers.
It's been far from perfect, but the Patriots have held two of five opponents under 100 yards rushing since Siliga became a starter.
Do Pats want Broncos to challenge the run D?
Even though the Patriots struggled against the run during the first go-around, there's logic behind the idea that they would prefer Denver to rely as heavily on the run as it did in Week 12.
The Broncos did not have a run over 18 yards, and their longest pass play was a reception by Montee Ball out of the backfield in which he was able to find open space and turn it into a 31-yard pickup.
Denver didn't have a single play over 18 yards besides that, as Manning threw for just 150 yards, easily his lowest output of the season.
Manning is the master of at-the-line play calling and adjustments, taking what the defense gives him on each snap. The Patriots may well aim to tempt the Broncos to run Sunday, hoping their run defense has been fortified enough to offset the Broncos' steady ground game.
Blount the bruiser
Blount had just two touches the first time these teams met (due in part to an early fumble), something that is bound not to repeat itself Sunday.
Since becoming the Patriots' late-season bell cow, Blount has gobbled up yards between the tackles. As a team, the Patriots have rushed for more than 200 yards per game between the tackles during their past three contests, best in the NFL.
For Blount, the 250-pounder, the key has been his pad level, playing with his weight above him and under control.
He has provided explosive plays too, both as a runner and returner. He has had runs of 30, 35, 36 and 73 yards over the past two games while also earning tough yards in short-yardage situations.
The Broncos have statistically been one of the better run defenses this season, but one must also consider the regularity that they have played from well ahead in a contest, often forcing opposing offenses to air it out.
Blount, Stevan Ridley and the Patriots interior offensive line present a unique challenge, hallmarked by physicality and a reliance on trap, power-I and other "old school" running plays that emphasize precise execution and power over creative scheming.
Can Broncos' D hold the fort?
Supposing the Patriots turn to Blount and the running game early, the question becomes whether the Broncos are able to stop -- or at least contain -- it.
Von Miller is known as an elite pass-rusher, but he's also an elite edge-setting run defender. With he and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson out, the Broncos are down two pillars of their run defense. While cornerback Chris Harris didn't figure into the run defense as prominently, his injury means an increased volume of snaps for veteran Quentin Jammer. The trickle-down effect is that the Patriots can attack Jammer in the passing game, which could force the Broncos to dedicate more help to his side, softening the box to defend the run.
So while the Broncos have been able to largely contain running games from a statistical measure this season (defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has been a strong contributor), the Patriots offense presents the greatest challenge yet, spearheaded by what has become arguably the most physical offensive approach in the NFL over the past month.
What's it all mean?
Brady and Manning have dominated the headlines this week, understandably so given their illustrious careers.
But, as unlikely as it seems, the running game will in large part dictate the outcome of Sunday's game.
The ability to limit explosive plays with their first game plan could result in the Patriots taking a similar approach to what they used in Week 12, forcing Denver to win on the ground rather than through the air to prevent Manning from one of his high-octane efforts.
But the Patriots must also do a far better job in their run fits, avoiding getting stuck on blocks at the first and second levels of the defense to prevent another field day from Moreno.
If they do that, combined with a rushing attack that may just be too physical for Denver to slow down, the Patriots have an excellent shot of running to their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.