The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots have played a half of their AFC Championship Game, and it’s been just an enticing as we expected. There have also been some important injuries to note regarding cornerbacks on both sides of the ball, though all of them but New England Patriots No. 1 corner Aqib Talib were able to return. Alfonzo Dennard went down with a shoulder injury early on that could have been serious, but he returned a drive later after it was only deemed a stinger. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie went down with an injury as well, but the Broncos top corner, whose injury in the first Patriots-Broncos battle was a huge blow, was able to return as well. Talib is still out with a “rib” injury, though beat writers believe that he aggravated the hip injury that he’s always struggled with during his career. Talib walked to the locker room under his own power and was seen back on the sideline, but he still isn’t back in the game. In last year’s AFC Championship Game, and injury to Talib greatly hurt the Patriots against the Baltimore Ravens.
As it stands right now at the half, the Broncos hold a 13-3 lead, but as we all know a half-time lead like that isn’t truly decisive (since, you know, the last game these teams played). But the Patriots clearly miss Talib, as Alfonzo Dennard just hasn’t been able to hang with Broncos superstar wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who has made huge plays in Talib’s absence.
The Patriots have failed to put consistent pressure on Peyton Manning, who has had plenty of time to pick apart the Patriots defense with his Four Horsemen, who have been open almost at will. Devin McCourty has once again been a big bright spot for the Patriots defense with excellent coverage, particularly on tight end Julius Thomas in one-on-one situations, and sure-handed tackling. But Jamie Collins has been the Patriots biggest bright spot on defense with some big plays in run defense and some nice coverage. Both he and Dont’a Hightower at LB have made up for some issues on the defensive line for the Patriots.
Peyton Manning is 18-25 for 214 yards and a touchdown in a big first half, but the Patriots situational defense on third downs and in the red zone have held the Broncos to 13 points. The Patriots offense needs to start get cooking, as the Broncos stout interior has put a chokehold on LeGarrette Blount and the running game that led the Patriots to victory against the Indianapolis Colts. Tom Brady looks solid out there and has decent numbers, but the Patriots offense has to turn things up a notch, especially on the ground, if they want to beat a Denver team that is getting some explosive plays from their wide receivers (especially Thomas) and big runs from Knowshon Moreno on the ground.
The Broncos have outplayed the Patriots thus far, but it’s still very much anyone’s game. If there is a secret weapon for the Patriots right now, then it looks like Shane Vereen, but they really do need to hope that Talib can return in order for them to contain Thomas and the Broncos incredibly deep and talented pass-catchers.