The New England Patriots play the cream of the crop of the AFC, the Denver Broncos, at mile-high altitude on Sunday afternoon. The Broncos were sluggish in their first game back from the bye week, and it showed as their offense failed to maintain consistency against a gritty Chargers defense. However, the big Denver defensive line stepped up, stuffing the Chargers’ game plan to ground and pound and even adding some timely pressure and drive-ending sacks.
This week, with the knowledge gained from their dramatic Week 12 come-from-behind victory over the Broncos, the Patriots match up with them following their strong win against the AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were unable to replicate their dramatic come-from-behind victory in the Wild Card round over the Kansas City Chiefs last week. New England’s power running game punished the Colts defense and left them with no chance to catch up in the closing minutes.
The storyline that has been played out ad nauseum this week has been the matchup of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Add in the rehashed wide receiver Wes Welker offseason move and the endless rehashed stories that come out of that and the average Patriots fan is hungering for some knowledge beyond the stars of the game. As we did last week in preparation for the Colts game, we present four under-the-radar players (two from each team) who could have a huge impact on their team’s chances for victory on Sunday afternoon.
New England center Ryan Wendell
The New England Patriots have had success in the passing game and running the ball after a tough start to the season. At the beginning of the season, the team struggled to move the ball on offense, as the running backs struggled to find space and quarterback Tom Brady struggled under a pocket-collapsing pass rush.
A big part of that problem was the interior of the offensive line. While left guard Logan Mankins quickly got back to his regular quality play, both center Ryan Wendell and guard Dan Connolly struggled with strong inside pass rush and creating running lanes. While Connolly has picked up his game in the second half of the season, Wendell has remained inconsistent.
One of Wendell’s better games was against Denver, as the Patriots ran infrequently and attacked Denver throughout the air in the second half. Denver’s interior pass rush was unable to disrupt Tom Brady’s pocket, and stepping up in the pocket to throw into the wind allowed Brady to get chunks of yardage and get New England back into the game.
Against Denver this Sunday, the performance of center Ryan Wendell will play a large role in New England’s success. Denver has powerful interior linemen who have been making plays in the running and passing game. If Wendell is unable to keep pass rushers out of the backfield and open lanes for the running game, it could be an under-the-radar performance that sends New England home.
Denver defensive tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton
Terrance Knighton is not one of the better-known defensive tackles in the NFL. Playing a 3-4 nose tackle position or as the left or right defensive tackle, the versatile player is hardly in one of the more glamorous roles on defense. This season, however, the man known as “Pot Roast” has been a major component of the success of the Denver defense, even without the talented Von Miller.
Knighton will be lining up right over New England center Dan Connolly at times, and his ability to penetrate and collapse the pocket is a huge need for the Denver defense if they are to pressure New England quarterback Tom Brady. Without Von Miller and with New England’s strong tackles, Denver’s best hope for pressure while dropping multiple defenders in coverage is interior pressure.
With Denver’s already-weak secondary losing top cornerback Chris Harris, the Broncos need all the help they can to contain the Patriots’ passing game. If Terrance Knighton is not able to win his one-on-one battles and disrupt the running and passing game, it could be a long day for the Denver defense.
New England wide receiver Danny Amendola
Denver’s secondary will really miss cornerback Chris Harris. While Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a big shutdown type corner, he often covers the outside receiver downfield, using the sideline to his advantage. Harris is the cornerback who handled the speedy and shifty slot receivers.
Against New England in Week 12, Denver tried everyone on defense to cover Patriot wide receiver Julian Edelman. However, Chris Harris was blanketing wide receiver Danny Amendola a good portion of the game and effectively shut him down. Harris allowed only one reception by Amendola on four passes thrown his way in coverage for a paltry four yards.
Without Harris, the focal point of the entire Denver secondary will be Edelman and receiving back Shane Vereen when he is on the field (usually third down). For the offense to thrive, New England needs Danny Amendola to step up in the AFC Championship game and improve upon his 3 receptions for 17 yards from last week. The Patriots paid Amendola a lot of money to step in for Wes Welker, and there is no bigger stage for Amendola to earn that money than this Sunday in the NFL playoffs.
Denver wide receiver Andre Caldwell
If there is one wild card in the Denver offense’s deck, it is wide receiver Andre Caldwell. At 6’1” and 200 pounds, the big, fast receiver out of Florida washed out in Cincinnati, but after not playing much in 2012, he has carved out a role as the fourth receiver. A strong blocker in the running game and downfield, Caldwell has the ability to pick up big chunks of yardage in the Denver offense.
Caldwell’s effectiveness is often deep down the left sideline or crossing the middle when the plethora of receivers for the Broncos clears out space. With only 17 receptions, he has been hurt by having 3 drops. When he holds on, however, he has been effective in helping Denver convert critical third down-and-long situations.
With the Patriots keying on the trio of star wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker while trying to slow standout tight end Julius Thomas, Caldwell is positioned well to make a big, game-changing play. If he can get behind the secondary of the Patriots as they focus on the other targets, it could be the kind of under-the-radar play that turns a game.
Although the playoffs are a time when stars shine, unheralded players step up every single game to play a big role and tilt the margin of victory to one team or the other. Denver wide receiver Andre Caldwell, New England wide receiver Danny Amendola, Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, and Patriots center Ryan Wendell are each in position to make a big, game-changing play; these under-the-radar players could have a huge impact on their respective team’s chances for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Like this story? Read why the Pats will win it in Denver.