The last time the Patriots won a playoff game, Tim Tebow won the Heisman and I was midway through my junior year of high school.
Now, I’m a junior at the same school that Tebow starred at and he’s the man who stands between the Patriots and the AFC Championship.
While my buddy Ricky Keeler will give us his game preview Friday, I’ll be taking a look at some of the individual battles to watch from a scouting perspective.
Here are my top five one-on-one matchups to keep an eye on Saturday night.
1. Matt Light (LT) vs. Elvis Dumervil (RE): Following the 2010 season, Matt Light’s tenure as the Patriots longtime left tackle seemed to be over. When he didn’t generated the interest in free agency and the lockout prevented first-round pick Nate Solder from being game-ready, the Pats made a shrewd move in bringing back the reliable former second-round pick. Despite his age and lack of elite physical skills, Light had one of his best seasons in his career, shutting down the likes of Dwight Freeney, Brian Orakpo and Tamba Hali during a tough stretch. Dumervil
wasn’t able to replicate his 2009 season when he led the league with 17.5 sacks, but has racked up 10.5 sacks in his last 12 games. Because of his lack of size (5-foot-11, 260 pounds), Dumervil plays with leverage and quickness. He had a nasty sack on Brady in the Broncos 41-23 loss and is one of the few threats to stopping the Patriots attack.
2. D.J. Williams (WLB) vs. Rob Gronkowski (TE): Williams tends to get overlooked by many fans, but he’s been a mainstay in Denver since he was selected in the first round in 2004. He has experience playing all three linebacker positions, but has settled in on the weakside now that Von Miller is in the fold. Williams is one of the more athletic linebackers in the league and may be asked to jam and cover Rob Gronkowski all day at the line of scrimmage. The former Hurricane actually did a solid job at this in week 15 (with safety help), but expect Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to find ways to get Gronk some free releases. Gronkowski has a sizable advantage over Williams (6-foot-6 vs. 6-foot-1) which will be difficult to stop in the red zone.
3. Mark Anderson (DE) vs. Ryan Clady (LT): Clady has been one of the best left tackles since entering the league in 2008 as the 12th overall selection. He has incredible size (6-foot-7, 330 pounds) which enables him to be an excellent pass blocker. Clady outweighs the quicker Anderson by over 70 pounds, giving him the advantage in the run game. However, Anderson usually only plays on passing downs which keeps him fresh and allows the Patriots to maximize his pass rush skills. If the Broncos want to hit the long ball, they’ll need Clady to give Tebow time in the pocket.
4. Champ Bailey (CB) vs. Wes Welker (WR): This matchup will be a fun one to watch as two of the best in the business try to get the upper hand. Bailey is the wily veteran who’s made more Pro Bowl appearances than any defensive back in NFL history. Welker has revolutionized the slot position and put together one of the finest seasons in team history with 122 catches for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. Bailey will probably be assigned to cover the 5-foot-9 jitterbug while Andre Goodman should draw Deion Branch. Bailey still has great athleticism, but Welker is such a tough cover because of his excellent route running and after-the-catch ability. There has been talk that Bailey might also cover Aaron Hernandez if he’s lined up as a wideout, so keep an eye on that.
5. Kyle Arrington (CB) vs. Demaryius Thomas (WR): When Josh McDaniels took Thomas over Dez Bryant in 2010, fans and draft analysts were left scratching their heads. After all, Bryant was a dominating talent at Oklahoma State who drew comparisons to Michael Irvin and T.O. while Thomas was simply a deep threat in a wacky offense. Flash back to last week – Thomas owned the Steelers secondary while Bryant was watching the playoffs at home. The former Georgia Tech star has an incredible size/speed combo and is getting better as a route runner. He burned the Patriots for 116 yards on seven receptions and caught four for 204, including the game-winner against Pittsburgh last weekend. Lining up on the left side of the formation, Thomas should draw Arrington, who led the NFL in interceptions. Arrington certainly had a solid season, drawing Pro Bowl consideration, but Thomas is both bigger (6-foot-3, 235 pounds vs. 5-foot-10, 196 pounds) and has better long speed.