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Knights in the NFL: AFC Championship Game Preview

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The New England Patriots take on the Denver Broncos Sunday at 3pm est on CBS.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A handful of former Rutgers stars now on the New England Patriots' defense will be playing in the AFC Championship game this weekend against the Denver Broncos. Nationally, the matchup between Denver's stout defense against New England's high powered, and finally healthy, offense will garner the most attention. However, Rutgers Nation will have all eyes on the opposite side of the ball, with four Scarlet Knights expected to get significant playing time on the Patriots' defense against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

While the Patriots' offense is finally beginning to get healthy, with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola all available for the second week in a row, the defensive side of the ball for the Pats is having health issues of their own. The Patriots linebacking core is riddled with injury, as Jerod Mayo was placed on IR (shoulder), while Jamie Collins (back) and Dont'a Hightower (knee) also have their status in doubt for Sunday's matchup. With this, Jonathan Freeny is expected to see increased playing time at the middle linebacker position. In the regular season matchup between these two teams, Freeny led the Patriots in tackles with 12 tackles and 1 sack. With their diminished options at linebacker, Pats fans will hope Freeny is able to replicate that type of productivity.

As was the case in Week 12, Logan Ryan is expected to take the majority of snaps across from Denver WR Demaryius Thomas. Ryan enjoyed success against the star wideout, recording four pass breakups and holding Thomas to just one catch all afternoon. While Ryan played man coverage on Thomas most of the game, the rest of the defense was in a zone, allowing Duron Harmon and others to keep an eye on Thomas as well. This type of team effort will be most useful in containing the big playmaker in the AFC Championship game.

Meanwhile, Devin McCourty has his focus not only on stopping Manning, but shutting down the Denver run game that put up 179 rushing yards in their Week 12 matchup. McCourty claimed their was a "direct correlation" between stopping the run and setting up the rest of their defense.

One of the things that Bill Belichick excels at is taking away an opponent's strength. I fully expect the Patriots defense to focus on stopping the run in order to make the Broncos throw the ball. Although Denver has star wide receivers in Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Manning has been a shell of himself all season, and I do not think he has enough to beat New England himself. With that said, I believe the x-factor of the game will be Freeny. Mayo is out, who McCourty called "the heart and soul of the defense," while Hightower, still dealing with a sprained knee, was the predominant run stopper on defense. If Freeny is able to step up and play big for New England, they should be able to win handedly in Denver. My prediction: New England: 31 Denver 17

NOTE: Linebacker Kevin Snyder was also promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, giving Rutgers five players on Sunday's roster. We'll look for him to possibly get in on some special team opportunities.