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January 18. 2014 11:07PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Today, only the game matters


New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady shakes hands with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning following their November 2012 game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 31-21. (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)

YESTERDAY was about the debate over who's the better quarterback - fodder perfect for filling a week's worth of sports radio airtime, given the way it lends itself to loud absolutes while disregarding those dissuasive facts and variables.

Tomorrow will be about legacies, and how 60 minutes of football may have changed the way history ultimately views the careers of the trio of someday-hall of famers who headline this season's AFC championship game.

But today is about today.

Today isn't about what happened a decade ago, or how it will look a decade from now. It isn't about how Peyton Manning has performed against Bill Belichick, or how he compares to Tom Brady. Just like it isn't about the players who are injured on each side, or about what happened this season, or last week, or when these same teams met just eight Sundays ago.

Today is about today, and solely about whether the Patriots can figure a way to get past the Broncos and into their sixth Super Bowl in 13 seasons - regardless of what that requires, or what may have worked recently, or what may have mattered in the more distant past.

They're underdogs this afternoon, and rightfully so, given that no longer are they good enough to simply line up and overwhelm their opponent. They're not talented enough to trust execution alone. But they do have enough of everything - depth, playmaking, toughness chief among them - that if they can just put together four smart, sound quarters, the Patriots could be capable of becoming conference champs.

"The margin of error is very slim," said Pats quarterback Tom Brady. "They're a very good team. They play well at home. We just can't go out there and turn the ball over four times, be 25 percent on third down, be one-of-four in the red area and think that we're going to win the game.

"We just have to do a lot of things well, and I think that's what you just try to express, that this has to be our best effort."

What's encouraging for the Patriots is that their two best efforts of the season to this point may have come over the past three contests, first in a road win at Baltimore, then in last week's divisional round against Indianapolis. But aside, maybe, from some lingering confidence, that matters little right now.

It matters little that they've totaled 501 rushing yards over the past two weeks, because the Broncos' defense is weakest against the pass, particularly now that the league's 27th-ranked unit has lost top cornerback Chris Harris to a knee injury.

It matters little, too, that the Patriots beat Denver back in November, or how they did it. Tight end Rob Gronkowski played in that game. So did Harris, and stud pass rusher Von Miller, while Broncos' tight end Julius Thomas did not. The wind chill was in the single digits, while the wind itself was strong enough that New England opted to give the greatest offense ever the ball to start overtime.

None of that will be the same today, on what's expected to be an unseasonably warm and sunny day in the Mile High city - nor will likely be the result if the Patriots again fall behind by 24 points, again yield 280 rushing yards, again fumble six times, or again rely on recovering three Bronco giveaways. It might've worked then, but it won't today. So by now it's almost irrelevant.

"It's just like any time you play a team twice," Belichick said. "I think you look at what happened but you have to erase the board and start all over again."

It all starts again this afternoon, from 0-0, which is why the question isn't whether Belichick has been able to confuse and frustrate Manning in the past, it's whether he can do so today. It's not whether Brady is better than Manning, it's whether he can be better today by recognizing what the defense presents and making the proper decisions whether to run or pass.

It's not whether the Patriots secondary is as talented as the Broncos' receivers, it's whether they can they can check them at the line and cover them well enough today. It's not whether the Patriots can win the AFC again after a tumultuous offseason was compounded by a multitude of injuries - to Gronkowski, to Vince Wilfork, to Jerod Mayo - it's whether the 46 guys in uniform are good enough to beat the top seed in the AFC.

Not whether they're better than the Broncos. Just good enough to beat them today.

Because, at this point, today is all that matters.

- - - - - - - -

UNDERRATED: Wes Welker. He's not the player he was in New England, after a couple of concussions this season, and in the six games he's played since the start of November he has only 29 catches for 261 yards. But he has scored 11 touchdowns as a Bronco, and he remains a player who could hurt the Patriots if they overemphasize Eric Decker and the Thomases - Julius and Demaryius - in the passing game.

- - - - - - - -

OVERRATED: The Patriots' identity as a running offense. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley have emerged as a big strength running behind an offensive line that's playing well, though the brilliance of Brady is being able to take advantage of what the defense presents. Thus, don't be surprised if the Pats gladly go to the air if the Broncos load the box today. "As long as we're scoring points we're happy," tackle Logan Mankins said. "If we're throwing the ball well we're happy, if we're running the ball well we're happy - as long as we score."

- - - - - - -

KEEP AN EYE ON...: Danny Amendola. If the Broncos do load up against the run, Amendola could be a huge factor. Denver's top priority from a coverage perspective will likely be Julian Edelman, which - with Harris' injury - could leave Amendola with opportunities to make plays on the outside, particularly in play-action.

- - - - - - - -

KEY MATCHUP: Julius Thomas vs. Jamie Collins. The Patriots' rookie linebacker was excellent in the divisional round against Colts tight end Coby Fleener, and he could be the one charged with handling the former basketball player. If he can do a good enough job with little need for help, the benefit could be huge for the Pats defense.

- - - - - -

STAT OF THE WEEK: In their three losses this season, the Broncos are 16 for 43 in converting third downs (37 percent). In wins, they're 88 for 175 (50.2 percent).

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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