The analogies are spot on. This Sunday’s AFC Championship is a heavyweight fight. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots have dominated their divisions for over a decade and both teams have been some of the most successful franchises in the NFL. Sunday they will meet for their third playoff game in six years, with the defending champion Patriots holding the title of “favorites” on the road. The key to knocking out the champs rests in the hands of two different underdogs with the same job.

C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have both shared time in the backfield running the ball while Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler have shouldered much of the attention. Both players, the quick, big-play Hillman and the bruising, relentless Anderson have taken turns saving the Broncos season several times; Sunday should be no different.

“We have to run the ball for us to stay balanced and for us to be successful this week. That’s what we’re going to do,” Hillman said with confidence Thursday. “That’s just what we do and everybody knows it. We just have to hit them in the mouth.”

The Broncos have been hitting people in the mouth for several weeks now. After a slow start in the running game, they have stuck with it, even late into games when it appears futile, only to come out with big plays. After ranking 29th in the NFL in rushing (86 ypg) through the first ten weeks, the Broncos have ranked seventh in the league (135.1 ypg) over the final seven games of the regular season. Kubiak attributes the success to simply figuring out the new scheme with his young backs and new lineman.

“I think C.J. [Anderson] and Ronnie [Hillman] have gotten more comfortable with what we’re doing. I think throughout the course of the season and having three first-year players – really not all first-year players, but first-year starters for us – I think those guys have continuously gotten better together. I think, if anything, it’s been a repetition and confidence in what we’re doing,” Kubiak said Thursday.

Anderson and Hillman have had big-time runs this season on their way to successful years. Hillman carried the ball 207 times in the regular season for 863 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown in their 23-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4. Anderson ran for 720 yards on 152 regular season carries, with his biggest play coming against the Patriots in Week 12 in the form of a 38-yard game-winning overtime touchdown run. Both backs have fought tooth and nail for opportunity in the NFL and that mentality has set them up for the fight ahead.

“We are battle tested. Believe me, we are battle tested. There are times offensively that we are like, ‘What are we doing?’ But we just fight and we grind. That speaks to a lot of us and a lot of players in that locker room and a lot of coaches,” Anderson said Thursday. “We don’t look at the scoreboard until its all zeroes. As long as the clock is ticking, we have a chance. That is how we feel.”

The Broncos will try and repeat recent history. In their recent meetings with the Patriots, in all of the closest games they have run the ball successfully, including their 2013-14 AFC Championship win. In the regular season matchup on Nov. 29 the Broncos ran the ball extremely well, gashing the Patriots for 179 yards on 32 runs and three touchdowns, which led to their 36:31 time of possession and eventual win in overtime.

“I think we found a couple of creases. We made some big plays. I think it was just effort and finding the right one. Going back through it, we made a couple of plays here and there and then made the big one on third-and-one,” offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said Thursday of the Nov. 29 game. “Both of those guys, Ronnie [Hillman] and C.J. [Anderson] did a great job. They ran really, really hard – like they have every week. Once we find a crease and finish blocks, I think that’s the biggest thing.”

The Broncos surely expect the Patriots to try and stop a repeat of Anderson’s and Hillman’s games, but a strong running game will keep Tom Brady off the field. Kubiak understands that he may have to wait until Sunday to feel out the style of play needed to win, but he will try and continue with what has worked recently.

“I think we have go be aggressive, play our style of football. At the end of the day [time of possession] could be a big factor. Sometimes not having possession time but making big plays is the difference in the game, so I don’t think you know how it is going to go. You just go out there and cut loose and let your guys do the things they are confident doing,” Kubiak said Friday.

The offensive line has also improved steadily over the season with several young plays coming into their own while veterans Ryan Harris, Louis Vasquez and Evan Mathis have tried to stay healthy. Mathis, who ranks first in run blocking and seventh overall among NFL guards according to Pro Football Focus, has seen the progress due to hard work and patience.

“It’s always a work in progress; we planned on it growing over time and we have done that each week,” Mathis said Thursday. “You can’t get frustrated no matter what happens. You have to learn from the last play, if you can at all, and then put it behind you, focus on the next play. You have to have faith that it is going to start clicking for you.”

The Broncos surely have an elite defense, the top-ranked defense in fact, and will need them to hold Brady and his cache of receivers from getting in the end zone; on offense, their success will weigh heavily on the running game. Anderson acknowledged their recent work Thursday and is seeing the field better at the best time.

“I just think it’s us running harder, being more decisive, picking our spots, understanding what fronts and what defenses are doing to us, and that’s all giving it up to our [running backs] coach Eric Studesville. He is always on us. He is pushing us every day. He makes sure that we are cutting it on the right foot, putting us in the right spots and ball security. We are just trying to keep that going.”

The line and the running game at times has taken a lot of flak this season, but now are the biggest key to a victory Sunday. Right tackle Ryan Harris, in his eighth season, certainly believes in the dynamic ball carriers he has behind him and wouldn’t want to play with anyone else entering the big game.

“I mean you can’t say enough about them. Clearly Ronnie is fast, so fast and C.J. just gets those long runs, especially when we need them. Both of them have done a great job of helping us win games and we honestly we couldn’t ask for two better backs in the league,” he said Thursday.

The Broncos enter the game as underdogs and have become accustomed to the role, even at home, several times this season. It adds fuel to the fire for the regularly amped up Anderson entering their heavyweight matchup.

“Oh, you know, ‘We don’t have a chance.’ If that doesn’t motivate you, then you are in the wrong business. We are supposed to go out there and get killed on Sunday, which is funny to me,” he said Thursday.

The Broncos look like Buster Douglas about to take on Mike Tyson to many around the country, but that may bode well for the Broncos and their running backs in particular. Both players were often overlooked and presumed “down for the count” on several occasions, only to get back up and give a knockout punch. Sunday, one or both will be asked to do so again, and for Hillman, one thing is certain, they won’t give up until the last round is over… or rather, the clock hits zero.

“We are fighting for each other. We all have one common goal, and that is a Super Bowl. When it is that one play when you are tired or whatever, you just think about the next guy. We all just know that. You have to be accountable for yourself and what you do, but you also have that teammate next to you to help you out.”

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