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Why the New England Patriots can beat the Denver Broncos

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are three reasons the New England Patriots can beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, CBS).

Edelman changes everything: As the Patriots showed in Saturday’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, things look a lot different when receiver Julian Edelman is on the field. With Edelman available, the Patriots were a better offense on third down (6 of 12) and shifted to more of a three-receiver attack (47 of the first 50 snaps). How much does quarterback Tom Brady rely on Edelman? Start with how he targeted him a team-high 16 times on Saturday, and you get the idea. Edelman, who broke a bone in his left foot Nov. 15 and returned for the first time Saturday, didn’t play in the Patriots’ 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos on Nov. 29. The Patriots were 2 of 13 against the Broncos on third downs in that game. Edelman’s presence promises to yield better results.

This isn’t the same Manning: This will mark the 17th meeting between Brady and Peyton Manning, which is always a treat. While Brady is still playing at a Pro Bowl level, Manning is now relying more on veteran savvy as a game manager. He’s also turning the ball over at an alarming rate, with his 17 interceptions in the regular season the second highest total among quarterbacks. Manning can still deliver the clutch throw in the got-to-have-it moment, as we saw Sunday in the Broncos’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, this isn’t the same signal-caller who used to strike fear into opposing defenses.

Run defense should tighten up: The Patriots surrendered 179 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries to the Broncos on Nov. 29, one of their worst performances of the season. Their tackling in the secondary has improved since that game, and another part of that was not having starting linebacker Jamie Collins (illness) and then losing starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower late in the second quarter. There’s reason to think they’ll be better this time around, even with the health status of Collins an unknown (back injury), as Hightower is back in the middle and a difference-maker.