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Here's a key matchup to watch in the divisional-round game between the Patriots and Broncos:
Patriots run defense vs. Broncos RBs Willis McGahee and Lance Ball
Make no mistake — despite Tim Tebow's 316 passing yards last week, the Broncos will want to run the ball early and often to keep Tom Brady off the field Saturday night. Denver rushed for 252 yards against the Patriots in Week 15.
We already addressed stopping Tebow's legs, but slowing down McGahee and Ball is a whole other story for the Pats. McGahee gained 10 yards per rush before leaving the game with an injury less than a month ago, then Ball picked up the slack.
On a 32-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Ball ran through big holes created by his O-linemen. C J.D. Walton did a great job getting to the second level and sealing off Patriots LB Jerod Mayo. When Ball got into the secondary, his receivers were blocking downfield, led by Eddie Royal, and Patriots DBs Devin McCourty and Nate Jones couldn't bring Ball down. That score put the Broncos up 13-6.
Of the Broncos' 10 longest plays that Sunday, six of them were runs — two by Tebow, one from Ball, two from McGahee and a 25-yard run by Jeremiah Johnson.
It was a tale of two halves, though, for this matchup in Week 15. The Broncos rushed for 182 yards in the first half. Patriots defensive play-caller Matt Patricia made some adjustments, and Denver rushed for 70 yards in the second half. They were also playing from behind, but the Pats stiffened.
On Saturday night, the Patriots get Brandon Spikes back in the middle and Patrick Chung, a solid run stopper, back at safety. Run defense was the Patriots' staple last season and early this season, but it fell off in the second half. Spikes and Chung will also help fill the void of DE Andre Carter, who suffered a season-ending injury in that Broncos game and had done well setting the edge before going down.
Like stopping Tebow, the Patriots' front seven will need to contain the backs and not let them bounce outside. McGahee is a load to bring down, and the Patriots cannot afford some of the missed tackles that plagued them in Week 15.
Stopping the run also puts Tebow in 3rd-and-long situations, which are far from his strength, and that allows more flexibility for Bill Belichick's defense. Allowing big runs on first and second down also will give the Broncos' offense some confidence. Look for Spikes, Chung, Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to be key performers in halting the Broncos' run game.