Patriots vs. Broncos: 5 players to watch for Denver

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady is a known quantity, so how do other key players make an impact on Sunday?

SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

The quarterback duel scheduled to take place on Sunday is well-worn ground. We know the players, understand the history of Manning vs. Brady and know what another meeting between these future Hall of Famers entails. Often overlooked are the ancillary characters, a supporting cast that extends beyond No. 18 and No. 12 that will help determine who plays in the Super Bowl.

For the Denver Broncos, these players will primarily come on the offensive side of the ball. It's not that they don't have a competent defense, but injuries have ravaged this unit throughout the regular season and playoffs. There will be an inherent need for the Broncos offense to stay in a potential shootout while the defense does its best to play "bend don't break" football, not dissimilar to the way the team beat San Diego in the Divisional round.

Knowshon Moreno

There's no obvious reason why Moreno broke out in 2013 other than solid quarterback play and opportunity. He held off rookie Montee Ball in training camp and quickly asserted himself as not only the best running back on the Broncos' roster, but one of the best rushers in the league -- even if his season came without much fanfare.

Moreno's season totals were lost in the wash of great running performances: 1,586 all-purpose yards, running at 4.3 yards per carry while totaling 13 touchdowns. He was a true dual-threat back, and arguably the best in the AFC outside of Jamaal Charles.

In his last game against New England he didn't just thrive, he ate the Patriots alive. Denver leaned heavily on its ground game and Moreno rewarded his team with 224 rushing yards. It was the best game of his career by a large margin and he could be a difference-maker again on Sunday.

Demaryius Thomas

There's a "chicken and egg" argument to be had whether Thomas is an elite receiver in his own right or if his performance is a byproduct of Manning, but in the grand scheme it doesn't matter. It's hard to find a better receiver/quarterback combination in the NFL right now.

In the last two seasons, Thomas has been the picture of consistency. He has 90-plus receptions in both years, and more than 10 touchdowns. 2013 was a particularly good season for him in terms of catching passes in the end zone, finishing with 14 total scores.

The Patriots did a great job taking Thomas out of the game when these teams last met. He was held to 41 yards receiving in a contest that saw a greater emphasis on the ground game. 2012 was a different story, however, when he finished with a career-high 180 yards against New England.

Shaun Phillips

On a defense that has been wracked with problems, Phillips has become its unsung hero. Von Miller's suspension and subsequent ACL tear would set up a scenario where Denver needed a signature pass rusher to fill the void, and Phillips answered the call.

In 2013, he finished the regular season with 10.0 sacks, but more importantly added a team-high 32 quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus.

During his time in San Diego, he only totaled 2.0 sacks in four career games against Tom Brady. The Broncos need a big game from Phillips on Sunday to ensure a win.

Julius Thomas

There are scores of reasons why Eric Decker and Wes Welker are vital to the offense, but it's Julius Thomas who presents a more intriguing matchup.

Thomas wasn't a factor week-in, week-out on the stat sheet, but it's a case of the threat being more than the actuality. There is no defensive option that involves leaving him uncovered, while accounting for him with a linebacker too often means allowing Welker to come out of the slot uncovered.

He's a tight end who changes levels and forces a defensive coordinator to account for him on every snap. This is where Thomas wins.

Danny Trevathan

Running the gamut of Denver's stars, you often don't hear about what an impact Trevathan makes to a defense. He's a rare breed of outside linebacker who isn't an elite pass rusher, but he's an elite run rusher.

There's a significant difference between a run stopper plugging gaps and someone who routinely meets the running back at the line. It's the latter where Trevathan excels. Pro Football Focus credited him with a team-high 50 stops in 2013, an astonishing number at the linebacker position.

The Patriots are skewing more towards a run-first team, especially in the playoffs. Having a reliable player who can prevent third-and-short situations is key to winning this matchup.

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