DENVER --Sunday, we will learn if the events of Week 17 meant anything in the grand scheme of determining the winner of the Lamar Hunt Trophy for the 2015 season.
If the Patriots walk away with their ninth AFC championship and seventh of the Belichick-Brady era, then the combination of results that dropped the Patriots to the No. 2 seed will be considered irrelevant.
But if the Broncos can upset the Patriots and earn their eighth Super Bowl appearances, observers will rewind back to the six and a half hours on the afternoon of Jan. 3, when the Patriots lost their grip on the No. 1 seed with a 20-10 defeat to Miami, allowing the Broncos to walk through the door and take home-field advantage after the Peyton Manning-led comeback over the Chargers.
The Broncos had earned the opportunity to capitalize, of course, positioning themselves to pounce thanks to overtime victories over the Patriots and Bengals -- both of which were at home. That provided them the tiebreaker advantage they needed by Week 17.
Make no mistake, the Broncos possess a distinct advantage to being at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Home teams are 64-34 all-time in championship games during the Super Bowl era, including the Broncos' 5-1. Even in this wide-open, unpredictable epoch of the sport, home teams are 14-6 over the last 10 conference-championship games.
Home-field advantage assures nothing, but it at least brings the Patriots out of their comfort zone.
In the Belichick-Brady era, the Patriots are 15-3 in playoff games played in Foxborough and 4-2 in neutral-site Super Bowls ... but just 3-3 on the road, including two defeats in Denver -- 10 and two years ago this month.
Since 2011, only eight teams have a greater home-road disparity than the Patriots; in the regular season they are 35-5 (.875) in Foxborough, but 22.5 percentage points worse (26-14, .650) on the road; the league average is 13.8 percentage points difference between home and road. (By comparison, the Broncos are a bit more consistent; they're four games worse than the Patriots at home, going 31-9 since 2011, but are one game better on the road, with a 27-13 mark.)
What's more, Denver has been a formidable venue for the Patriots, who are 2-6 in Brady's eight starts here.
A raucous crowd and a top-ranked defense could cause problems for the Patriots. But a healthy offense that has all its components could do the same for the Broncos, who now have to deal with Julian Edelman. Given that the Patriots score an average of 12 more points per 60 minutes and 1.5 more points per possession with Edelman than without him, the quick slot receiver is a potential game-changer.
Beyond containing Edelman and minimizing his primary and ancillary impact, what are the three keys for the Broncos in their attempt to turn back the favored Patriots?
- Pressure from inside.**
With Edelman in the lineup, Tom Brady gets the ball away in 2.21 seconds, according to ProFootballFocus.com. While Von Miller claims he can get to Brady in one second, actually doing that from the edge is virtually impossible unless Brady rolls in his direction. So the best way to get quick, disruptive pressure on Brady -- especially if the Broncos are playing from behind -- is from the three-technique defensive ends and the nose tackle, with an occasional blitz up the A-gap to supplement pressure.
If the Broncos can build a multi-score lead, Brady will look for larger clumps of yardage, which would increase his time in the pocket and create more opportunities from the edge. But if the Patriots get into their preferred rhythm, the Broncos won't be able to disrupt Brady on a regular basis unless pressure comes from the inside.
Fortunately for the Broncos, this has been a strength. Two of their three sacks in the Week 12 win over New England came from their three-techs.
- Minimize the damage.**
This has two components:
a) Prevent yardage after the reception.
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski leads all NFL tight ends and wide receivers (minimum 400 total receiving yards) with an average of 7.84 yards after the catch per reception. Only nine receivers with at least 400 total receiving yards get a higher percentage of their yards after the catch than Julian Edelman, who averaged 5.36 yards after the catch per reception and gets 47.3 percent of his yards that way.
Gronkowski, Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola all get at least 43 percent of their yardage after the catch. Denver's defensive backs must be on point and miss fewer tackles than they have in recent weeks, otherwise short to intermediate gains will become long ones that gash their defense.
b) Prevent the Patriots from maximizing their red-zone opportunities.
No AFC team has been more efficient at turning trips inside the 20 into touchdowns than the Patriots, with 66.2 percent of their red-zone treks ending in touchdowns (that figure also ranks third in the league). The Broncos' red-zone touchdown percentage of 47.8 ranks 15th in the AFC and 27th in the league.
Tom Brady leads the league with 58 red-zone completions in 94 attempts. Fifty percent of his completions were for touchdowns. (By comparison, Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler combined to go 37-of-66 in the red zone, with 13 touchdown passes).
Not only must the Broncos contain the Patriots in their red zone, but their offense must become more efficient in New England's. Denver's offense has been proficient in the last two games, averaging 30.97 points per 60 minutes since Manning re-entered against San Diego, but the Broncos have just three touchdowns and seven field goals. More of those drives must end in the end zone for Denver to have a chance Sunday.
3. Protect and procure.
(Otherwise known as, "Win the turnover battle.")
New England is almost unbeatable when it has a positive turnover margin. In the Belichick era, the Patriots are 138-12 when winning this statistic, including 35 wins in the last 37. If the Patriots get to plus-two, they've won 73 consecutive games since losing 24-16 to Denver on Oct. 27, 2002 with a plus-two margin.
The Patriots had the fewest giveaways in the league this year (14), and although they didn't force many takeaways (21, tied for 22nd with Cleveland), they still finished tied for seventh in the league with eight games in which they had a positive turnover margin. Denver was right behind them at seventh in spite of being 30th in giveaways (31), mainly because the defense forced 27 turnovers of its own.