Pa­tri­ots D:

Dont’a Hightower was hurt in the first clash, and the Bron­cos’ run­ning game took off. But he’s back.

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Tim Brit­ton

foxbor­ough, mass.» You can pin­point the mo­ment this sea­son’s first meet­ing be­tween the Pa­tri­ots and Bron­cos piv­oted.

It was a tight end screen to Den­ver’s Owen Daniels to­ward the end of the se­cond quar­ter. The play gained 8 in­nocu­ous yards. It also knocked Dont’a Hightower out of ac­tion.

Be­fore the linebacker suf­fered a sprained me­dial col­lat­eral lig­a­ment while tack­ling Daniels, the Den­ver run­ning game had done next to noth­ing, pick­ing up 46 yards on 16 car­ries (an av­er­age of 2.9 per carry). On the first snap with Hightower on the side­line, Ron­nie Hill­man ran right at Hightower’s re­place­ment, Jerod Mayo, and de­liv­ered as long a run as the Bron­cos had had all game — 9 yards. On the next play, he broke a Mayo tackle in the back­field on a toss and ran 19 yards to the end zone for the touch­down that got Den­ver back into the game.

The Bron­cos ran the ball 16 times with Hightower out, gain­ing 133 yards for an av­er­age of 8.3 per carry. In over­time, C.J. An­der­son’s 48yard touch­down run around the left side won the Nov. 29 game.

“It was def­i­nitely a prob­lem,” Pa­tri­ots coach Bill Belichick said of Den­ver’s run­ning game. “We just didn’t play very well. Give up 179 yards, I mean, that’s not where we want to be.”

Much of the the fo­cus lead­ing up to Sun­day’s re­match with Den­ver in the AFC cham­pi­onship game has been on Pey­ton Man­ning’s re­turn at quar­ter­back in place of Brock Osweiler, who led Den­ver to the vic­tory over New Eng­land. But it’s Hightower’s re­turn to the Pa­tri­ots’ lineup that might play the big­gest role in re­vers­ing the out­come from the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Con­sid­er­ing the un­cer­tainty over how Man­ning will per­form at quar­ter­back, Den­ver may need the type of per­for­mance on the ground that it re­ceived af­ter Hightower went out in that first meet­ing. But with the se­cond level of the New Eng­land de­fense shored up by the re­turn of Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Pa­tri­ots are con­fi­dent the Bron­cos won’t be run­ning for 179 yards this time around.

“That’s the No. 1 thing I take pride in — be­ing an ag­gres­sive, down­hill run stop­per,” Hightower said Fri­day at Gil­lette Sta­dium. “That’s what I do. It means a lot to me.”

Hightower is, as Pey­ton Man­ning called him this week, the quar­ter­back of the Pa­tri­ots’ de­fense. He is the one who will be match­ing wits with Man­ning, gen­er­ally be­lieved to be the best in the NFL at chang­ing the play call at the line of scrim­mage. Hightower re­mem­bered that cat-and-mouse game from New Eng­land’s 2014 meet­ing with the Bron­cos.

“I don’t know if it’s fun as much as it’s tricky,” he said. “You don’t want to be in that kind of fight with Man­ning; he usu­ally wins that. Last year, we had a pretty good plan as far as try­ing to mix it up and try­ing to con­fuse him a lit­tle bit. It showed early on, and we kind of had him frizzed a lit­tle bit. Hope­fully, we can do a lit­tle bit of that this year too.”

“He’s like the pi­lot of the plane,” Pa­tri­ots cor­ner­back Mal­com Brown said of Hightower. “He con­trols ev­ery­thing. He tells ev­ery­body what to do, and we just try to ex­e­cute that.”

Steven Senne, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Pa­tri­ots out­side linebacker Dont’a Hightower warms up for prac­tice Thurs­day.

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