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Broncos, Patriots bring contrasting styles to AFC title clash

by Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writer

Preparation is something significant in football. Both the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots know that well and have done it for weeks before the two AFC powerhouses meet each other in the conference final on Sunday.

You hear about Peyton Manning’s cold-weather struggles here and there. Manning, the only player in history to have won the league MVP award four times and who will likely earn his fifth in a couple of weeks, has been 4-7 when the temperature at kickoff is under 32 F (0 C).

One of the reasons he has struggled in cold weather is he wears a glove on his throwing hand. That affects his grip on the ball, zip of the ball, and touch on his passes.

When Manning played for the Colts from 1998 to 2010 (not including 2011 when he was sidelined due to a neck injury), he rarely had to wear the glove because the Colts play in a temperature-controlled dome. But in Denver, that is not the case, especially when the Broncos host postseason games.

What Manning has done to overcome cold-weather struggles this season, his second with Denver, is try to get used to wearing the glove for more than one-third of the season. He started to wear a glove on his right hand in Week 11 against the Chiefs and has kept it on even in mild weather in Houston and Oakland. He has thrown 24 of 57 touchdown passes during that span (including the postseason).

Now he looks comfortable throwing the ball with a glove on.

But how the cold weather affects his injury-damaged neck, shoulder, and arm strength is still anyone’s guess. The weather forecast for Sunday in Denver is 31 F (minus 0.6 C) at its coldest point.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have to slow down the Broncos’ league-best offense to advance to their sixth Super Bowl since the 2001 season. The best way to shut down Manning & Co. is to not let them play.

The longer Manning stays on the sideline, the less Denver can score. It’s just that simple.

However, making it happen is not that simple. The Patriots somehow found the answer and have spent the last few weeks preparing for it. The solution is establishing a run offense.

In its last three games, the New England offense has changed from a pass-happy attack to a run-heavy one. The net rushing yardage per game increased from 118.3 yards in the first 14 games to 214.3 in the last three. Tom Brady threw for 289.2 yards per game in the first 14 games, but only 164.0 in the last three.

Using inside runs by LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley frequently, the Patriots control the clock and keep the opponent’s offense out of the game as long as possible. Blount, an offseason acquisition via a trade with Tampa Bay, has run for 355 yards and six touchdowns in the past two games.

Familiarity: Being division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers know each other well and their third matchup of the season decides who’s No. 1 in the NFC.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson knows how tough the 49ers’ disguising defense is to play against. Wilson has been struggling against the Cardinals, Rams, and Saints defenses recently. All three defenses used disguising alignments and coverage to confuse Wilson.

The 49ers should copy the strategy and add some attacking style with a pass rush by linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.

San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has found it tough to play at CenturyLink Field. Kaepernick threw three interceptions and lost a fumble there and had a career-worst passer rating (20.1) the last time he played there in a 29-3 loss (Week 2). He avenged the loss with a 19-17 win 12 weeks later, but had a tough time against the Seahawks’ aggressive and physical defense by going 15-for-29 for 175 yards, one touchdown and one interception (rating 67.5).

Fresh faces: Six of seven head coaching vacancies have been filled and only the Cleveland Browns are still hunting for a new bench boss. Three of the new coaches (50 percent) have head coaching experience in the NFL and this percentage is pretty high for the recent standard. Since 2010 when all three new coaches — Chan Gailey of the Bills, Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and Mike Shanahan of the Redskins — were ex-NFL coaches, the majority of new head coaches have been first-timers (six out of eight in 2011, four of seven in 2012, six of eight last year).

This trend is probably affected by the success of Andy Reid and Bruce Arians. Reid, formerly with the Eagles, took over as the Chiefs head coach a year ago and turned the team from a 2-14 last-place team to an 11-5 playoff squad. Arians worked as interim coach for the Colts last season and improved the Cardinals from 5-11 to 10-6.

The NFL is a copycat league. So the Lions (Jim Caldwell), the Buccaneers (Lovie Smith) and the Titans (Ken Whisenhunt) hope to follow the same path as the Chiefs and Cardinals with experienced head coaches.