- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field:

When the Patriots (13-4) have the ball:

Run, baby, run.

The Patriots? Yep.

While all four remaining teams in the playoffs have solid ground games, New England has ridden the backs of its backs the most effectively. Sure, QB Tom Brady (12) is among the best ever and is seeking a fourth Super Bowl ring, but he’s also among the smartest ever. Brady knows that if his trio of runners - LeGarrette Blount (29), Stevan Ridley (22) and Shane Vereen (34) - are gouging the opponent, it’s the best approach to keep at it.

Blount has been unstoppable recently, rushing for 431 yards and eight TDs in the last three games. He scored four times in the rout of Indianapolis last week and is the power back the Patriots have lacked for a while.

That they’ve gotten such production behind an offensive line that entered the season with some uncertainty has been impressive, too. Left guard Logan Mankins (70) and left tackle Nate Solder (77) anchor the group, which has allowed only six sacks in the last four games.

Give Brady time and it’s a recipe for defeat for the opposition. So Denver has a dilemma: Would it rather force the clutch-passing Brady to go to the air or deal with the run game?

The Broncos‘ defense was staunch for most of the divisional round win over San Diego, but it has lots of holes. It ranked 19th this season, is without its best player, injured LB Von Miller, so there’s vulnerability.

Losing CB Chris Harris (25) to a knee injury won’t help, either. A hefty burden will be placed on the front seven to bottle up the run and get some pressure on Brady when he throws. That would make things much more comfortable for DBs Champ Bailey (24), and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (45).

Although Brady’s crew of targets was significantly downgraded this season by the departure of WR Wes Welker - to Denver, of all places - and Brandon Lloyd, injuries to TE Rob Gronkowski, and the arrest of TE Aaron Hernandez on murder charges, he’s made the best of it. In fact, he’s helped turn Julian Edelman (11) into another Welker.

Danny Amendola (80) is another pint-sized wideout, and the rest of the receivers have contributed in spots.

Not having to deal with Gronk should make Denver LBs Danny Trevathan (59) and Wesley Woodyard (52) more available in all defensive areas. If the line, led by DT Terrance Knighton (94) and end Shaun Phillips (90) gets some penetration and slows the running game, it will make the Patriots more one-dimensional.

Then again, is that such a good thing when Brady is chucking the ball?

When the Broncos (14-3) have the ball:

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