New England Patriots on paper: Mother Nature calls for old-school approach

This is the New England Patriots game to win or lose.

The Denver Broncos bring their high wire act to Gillette Stadium on Sunday night and while much has been made of Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense and also of the Patriots' injury woes in the secondary, Mother Nature doesn't want to hear any of it.

Ridley and the Patriots' running game will carry the mail on Sunday night
No, the margarine eating floozy that controls the life cycles of trees and such will, on occasion, cause the weather to be so inclimate that it renders passing attacks void and puts a premium on execution and fundamentals - in other words, she levels the playing field.

On Sunday night in Foxborough, she will do just that.

With temperatures forecasted to be in the teens and steady winds topping out at 35 miles per hour - for a wind chill factor close to zero - both the Patriots and Broncos passing games will be affected, perhaps Manning's more than Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's simply due to the velocity on their footballs...

...where Manning throws a fluttering duck, Brady throws a tight spiral, the aerodynamics involved should be obvious.

Even so, throw conventional wisdom out the window.

Neither passer will be able to go down the field with any level of confidence, and even throws to the sidelines will be an adventure - so anything gained by the passing games will be in the form of screens to the backs, middle of the field stuff to the slot guys and maybe intermediate routes to the possession type receivers.

But while both teams' passing attacks do those things well, the weather forces the Broncos to sacrifice more of their offense than it does New England - which levels the playing field to the point that the afore mentioned execution and fundamentals will dictate the outcome of this game.

While the Broncos have been covered previously, the weather amends their attack - but it also tasks both defenses similarly.

For instance, part of the Patriots defensive game plan was to stop the run and limit the yards after the catch in Manning's short, quick-read attack, forcing the Broncos into time-consuming drives in order to score their points which, in effect, would also limit the number of possessions that Manning has to work his magic - and the same now has to be true for the Broncos' defense against Brady.

Denver features a lightning quick front seven that ranks 5th in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing attempt, anchored by tackles Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson up the middle, supported on the second level with underrated middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard and young weak side tackling machine Danny Trevathan...

...with pass rush demons for defensive ends, starters Shaun Phillips and Derek Wolfe combining with back ups Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson to account for 22 of the Broncos 29 sacks on the season - and with strong side linebacker Von Miller back in the swing after serving a league mandated suspension, pressure from the edges is Denver's game.

Knighton does get some penetration up the middle, but for the most part any pressure coming at Brady will be from his blindside - which works decidedly in the Patriots' favor with their running game established to set up the play action, so long as they follow the pattern that has worked for them all season, which is running right up the middle and to the left of center.

Why?  The play action will naturally draw the ends up and around the edge, opening running lanes for running backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount off guard and off tackle - and all three should have a major impact on this game - with Vereen and possibly receiver Josh Boyce working the jailbreak screen to the left.

The impact of the pass catchers is going to have to be more in line with how Denver plays it, with short, quick-read throws put in a spot where the receivers can catch the ball on the run to allow for maximum after the catch yardage.

The problem is that Woodyard and Trevathan are excellent in pass coverage underneath, particularly the hyper-tense Trevathan who has eight passes defended and three interceptions to his credit.  He has also forced two fumbles and leads the Broncos in tackles with 79 - so this front seven is incredibly adept at dictating terms to the opposing offense.

The counter, of course, is getting the running game going - even if it is three yards and a cloud of exhaled mist.  Ridley is one of the most explosive running backs in the league and is the Patriots' version of the bell cow who will wear down a front seven with his 20 carries, then turn things over to Blount to step on their throats...

...but Vereen is the x-factor for this game.  Other than tight end Rob Gronkowski, no one player affects a game like Vereen can.  He will run between the tackles, curl into the pattern from the backfield, line up in the slot, line up out wide, step inside for the screen - he is an H-back without the size, but has speed to burn and will probably draw the attention of one of Denver's safeties.

As for the Patriots' passing game, this is a contest where the veteran presence will be counted on to make the majority of the plays.  Rookie speedsters Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce will be counted on to take corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey (if he plays) outside the numbers while rookie possession receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is an intermediate threat that could see a throw or two up the middle...

...but Brady will be looking at slot presence Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman and, of course, Gronkowski.  The issue is that Amendola and Edelman are rarely open in space like Welker is for the Broncos, so their yards after the catch are virtually non-existent - which leaves Gronkowski in the flat and up the seam.

Separately, this does not bode well for the Patriots' offense, but if Ridley and company can get the running game established and the Broncos are forced to focus on that more than they normally would, everything else will open up for Brady...

...and should Vereen and Gronkowski start getting loose in space, the Denver defense could be in for a long, painfully cold evening.