DENVER — The New England Patriots will beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game Sunday.

Just wanted to get that out of the way.

A lot of people agree. The Patriots, on the road, are favored and have been since the Broncos beat the Steelers last Sunday night to set up Tom Brady-Peyton Manning 17.

Despite New England’s struggles down the stretch, when it went 2-4 and lost home-field advantage, people see them as stronger than the Broncos, who have the NFL’s top defense.

The Patriots are favored despite losing in Denver in late November, 30-24 in overtime, blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to quarterback Brock Osweiler.

The Patriots are favored despite having little success in the Mile High City. In their long history with the Broncos, the Patriots are 9-20 in Denver and 0-3 in the playoffs, including a 26-13 loss in the AFC championship game that ended the 2013 season.


The Patriots are favored even though Brady has a 6-8 career record against the Broncos – 1-2 in the playoffs, both losses in Denver.

Bardy vs. Manning playoffs

How can this be? It’s easy. The Patriots are healthy this time.

Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola – who combined for 126 catches and 10 touchdowns this season – did not play in the late November game. Edelman was out with a broken left foot and Amendola with a knee injury.

The wide receivers that day were Brandon LaFell, Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper – who would play a huge role in the outcome of the game. Brady threw the ball their way 11 times, with five completions.

Most of his passes went to tight ends Scott Chandler (11 targets) and Rob Gronkowski (10). Yep, Brady threw more passes to Chandler that day than anyone else. Remember, Gronkowski went out with a knee injury late in the fourth quarter.

Last Saturday’s 27-20 divisional-round win over the Kansas City Chiefs was the first time Gronkowski, Edelman and Amendola played together since Nov. 15, when Edelman broke his foot in the second quarter of a 27-26 win over the New York Giants.


Edelman’s return helped open up the playbook. Brady completed 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns, both to Gronkowski, who had seven catches for 83 yards. Edelman caught a team-high 10 for 100 yards. Amendola caught two passes for 18 yards and returned a punt 22 yards.

Gronkowski’s status was uncertain because it had been reported that his knee – the one injured in the Denver loss – was bothering him. He showed no signs of being slowed. Nor did Edelman show many signs of being rusty even though after the game he complained about dropping a couple of passes. “You can’t win ballgames doing those things,” he said.

But special teams specialist Matthew Slater said their return was a spark.

“Changes everything,” he said of having them healthy. “Julian Edelman is a very unique player in this league, the things he’s able to do inside or outside, route running-wise, poses a lot of problems. And you’re maybe looking at the tight end of, definitely of his generation, but maybe looking at the best tight end who ever laced it up. That says a lot right there. It was a lot of fun to watch.”

The Broncos have a great pass defense, ranked first in the NFL in the regular season and allowing less than 200 yards a game. But they didn’t face an offense this potent the first time around.

And last week, against Pittsburgh, the Broncos gave up 339 passing yards to a team missing its most dynamic player, Antonio Brown.


With Edelman and Amendola healthy and able to get quickly away from man-to-man coverage, Brady can get rid of the ball quickly, before Denver’s pass rush – the Broncos led the NFL with 52 sacks, followed by the Patriots at 49 – can get to him.

Pats win-loss

That may force the Broncos to blitz more, giving Brady the chance to break a big play if he reads it properly.

Of course, none of this matters if the Patriots can’t stop the Broncos from running the ball successfully. Denver beat the Patriots in the regular season by rushing for 179 yards, including a 48-yard walk-off sweep by C.J. Anderson in overtime.

That game changed on another injury, when New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower went out with a knee injury in the second quarter. With him in the game, the Broncos had 43 yards on 15 rushes. Without him they had 136 on 17. His loss changed the complexion of the game. Since then the Broncos have been a formidable running team and now average 135.1 yards per game.

Hightower still might not be 100 percent, but he’s the team’s best run stuffer at linebacker. He reads plays and reacts better than anyone else. He’s needed to help the Patriots stop the running game and force the game into the hands of Peyton Manning. That might have seemed a silly thing to say five or 10 years ago, but this isn’t the same Manning.

He missed six games with injuries this season and had perhaps his worst year, throwing nine touchdown passes with 17 interceptions. His quarterback rating was 67.9 – 33rd in the league.


He may not be able to throw the long ball like he once did, but as he showed in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh, he knows how to direct an offense.

“Peyton is Peyton,” said Patrick Chung, the Patriots’ strong safety. “He knows the game and he knows how to slow the game down for himself. … He’s a baller and he’s playing good.”


And then there are the special teams. The November game changed when Harper, who was fielding punts because Amendola and Edelman were injured, muffed one. Denver recovered and its rally from 14 points down began.

Amendola will be back receiving punts this week, maybe even Edelman. They’re healthy, and that changes everything.

Patriots 27, Broncos 17.

Then on to California and Super Bowl 50.


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