COMMENTARY | The narrative heading into Sunday's AFC title game in Denver goes something like this: can Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' ragtag offense keep up with the high-flying Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning? It's a fascinating storyline … except for the fact that it's wrong. Since the start of November, a span of nine games, the Patriots have been the superior scoring team. And the gap is actually startling.
The numbers prove it. In the last nine games, Denver has scored 287 points. That's good for an average of 31.9 points per game. In that span, the Broncos scored more than 30 points five times, once reaching 50.
During that same time period, New England outscored Denver by three touchdowns. The Patriots posted 308 points, for an average of 34.2 points per game. They scored more than 30 on six occasions, besting 40 three times and 50 once.
Of course, these numbers include one game played on the same field, a 34-31 overtime win for the Patriots.
On the surface, the numbers don't seem to make much sense. The Broncos, of course, were the highest scoring team in NFL history, becoming the first ever to score more than 600 points. Meanwhile, Manning's season was inarguably the greatest statistical year ever for a quarterback. He destroyed Brady's touchdown mark, finishing with 55, and managed to eclipse Drew Brees' all time record for passing yards in the process.
But a closer look shows that Denver's magical season was front-loaded. The Broncos never scored less than 30 points in their first eight games. They've done so four times in their last nine.
Meanwhile, New England has quietly trended in the opposite direction. With an entirely new receiving corps, and without their two pro-bowl tight ends, the Patriots didn't crack the 30-point mark until the fourth week of the season. In fact, they did so only twice in the first eight games. But since the start of November this has been a different Patriots team. It began with a 55-31 thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, setting the stage for one of the most remarkable offensive turnarounds the league has seen in years.
The buzz seems to be centered on New England's resurgent power-running game, and that's justified. Led by LeGarrette Blount, the Pats have rumbled their way to more than 500 yards and eight touchdowns in just their last two games. Denver's ground attack is actually very respectable. Since the first of November, the Broncos have rushed for 127 yards per game on 27 carries. It's a solid 4.5 average, but the Denver backs find their way into the end zone less than once per game (.6 times to be exact). At the same time, Blount and the Patriots have been utterly dominant rushing the football. New England averaged 148 yards on the ground, and two scores per game in that same timeframe.
It's a dramatic shift in focus for a team known for airing it out, but don't sleep on Brady and this passing game.
The breakdown of Brady vs. Manning over the last nine games is surprisingly similar. Manning has managed an impressive 309-yard, three touchdown average since the end of October. But Brady's not far behind, throwing for 301 yards and 1.6 touchdowns per game in that period.
Granted, Manning nearly doubles Brady's output of touchdowns, but that gap slams shut when the running games are compared.
Players and coaches often talk about "peaking at the right time." Not surprisingly in the NFL, playing your best football in January is essential to winning a championship. Last year's Baltimore Ravens lost six regular season games before getting hot in the postseason. The 2010 Green Bay Packers did the same thing. In 2011, the New York Giants went 9-7 in the regular season before putting it all together in the playoffs.
But the best example of all comes from another record setting offense, the 2007 New England Patriots.
Just like this year's Broncos, those "perfect" Patriots didn't score less than 30 points until after week eight. From that point on, it happened six times, including in the Super Bowl.
Trends mean something. The Broncos offense has slowly trended down since the season began. The Patriots have rocketed towards the top of the league. If Manning wants a chance at that elusive second ring, he'll have to reverse that trend immediately. Otherwise, the numbers say it will be Brady's ragtag offense that will be the dominant force Sunday in Denver.
Evan Fitzgerald grew up near Boston, and has covered the NFL for nearly a decade. He can now be seen covering college sports for the Big 10 Network. Follow him on Twitter @evanwfitzgerald.
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