When Tom Brady took to the podium following the Patriots week 15 24-20 loss to the Dolphins in Miami, you could almost tell he knew this was coming.
He had just walked off the field after the Patriots failed to seize an opportunity to put themselves in control of the number one seed in the postseason, which Denver had more or less handed to them after the Broncos lost a critical game to the Chargers last month.
In the back of his mind he likely knew his team squandered a key opportunity to make sure this wouldn't happen. The loss to Miami that day took their shot at home field advantage throughout the playoffs out of their hands, which meant that they may eventually have had to win a road game in order to advance.
And here they are, heading back to the city where they started their Super Bowl drought. Brady's first ever post season loss came when they were bounced by the Broncos in the Divisional round following their Championship seasons in 2003 and 2004. They haven't won another one Lombardi Trophy since.
They've been close. Brady's made it to and lost two AFC Championship games, and was also on the wrong end of two Super Bowl defeats, one of which cost them a perfect season. It's been a frustrating run, and considering how this season has gone there were likely plenty of people who never dreamed they'd make it that far.
But they're one win away from a trip to New Jersey, and the only thing standing in their way is to go back to Denver where their postseason woes started and beat Peyton Manning and Wes Welker to get there. If this was on Brady's mind in that loss last month, it's easy to understand why he was so agitated. They had their shot to ensure they were playing at home, but now this rematch will happen on Denver's turf.
With the emergence of their running game in recent weeks, much of the talk offensively has centered on how much more balanced New England has been, including their win over Indianapolis Saturday night where it was Blount's 166 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns that carried them.
But Denver was just as balanced in their win over San Diego. Oddly enough, like New England's performance Saturday night, Denver didn't need big passing plays to beat the Chargers. On Sunday Denver finished the afternoon with just 1 pass play of over 20 yards, with Manning and the offense doing most of their work on short yardage plays, as 18 of his 25 completions went for plays of between 1-10 yards.
The run vs pass attempt totals were close, as overall Manning finished with 36 pass attempts, compared to 33 combined carries between running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, who combined for 133 yards on the ground. They churned out first down after first down, finishing the afternoon with 26 first downs, which were evenly balanced with 13 rushing the ball and 11 throwing it (and two via penalty), as well as converting 9-of-13 (69%) on third down. They were also pretty lethal in scoring territory, scoring three times in four tries, and would have had four had the ball not gone off Eric Decker's chest in the end zone right before the half for the interception.
For New England, they've been relying on their offensive line and the terrific performances by running back LeGarrette Blount over the last two games to hopefully open things up for their passing game. Unlike the first meeting they don't have Rob Gronkowski, which has already affected their approach. Brady has instead recently found himself as an elite quarterback who has simply needed to manage the game, while mixing in his pinpoint accuracy to help them move the sticks.
It only took 13 completions from Brady to win their first playoff game Saturday night, with Brady not throwing a touchdown pass while Blount did all the work on the ground as the Patriots racked up 42 points. The defense did their part and forced turnovers, and Brady ended up being just a role player in a game where he didn't need to play a featured part.
In Denver, that likely won't be the case. The Broncos are already an early favorite in this one and will likely try and do something that normally wouldn't be expected, and that's shut down the Patriots' ground game and put the ball back in Brady's hands. Their offensive weapons are somewhat limited compared to years past, with Kenbrell Thompkins suffering an injury Saturday night and leaving them with just Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Austin Collie as their remaining healthy receivers. That's more youth and speed than they've had in recent years, which is certainly a positive. Should Aaron Dobson be able to return this weekend, that would certainly give them another weapon. Shane Vereen is also a player who hasn't been utilized much recently in the passing game and could certainly end up playing a key role.
Watching how Sunday's game transpired against San Diego, it's pretty obvious that the Patriots can expect a tough environment and that's an edge that certainly falls in Denver's favor. The crowd is deafening when the opponent is on the field, and the only thing you can hear when the Broncos' offense is out there is the non-stop barking of Manning at the line who seemingly wears down the defense as much with his cadence as he does with his methodical approach with the offense.
Needless to say, this one will likely be a little tougher than the first meeting. New England won't be able to spot them 24 points and have their way this time around, and the Broncos will be looking for blood with a chance to get even on their turf.
Looking back, you sort of knew that after Welker ended up there that this story line would somehow come to pass. For now the stage is set, and it should be quite a game when the two face off next Sunday in Denver at 3pm ET.