This one needs no introduction. Pats-Broncos. Brady-Manning. It's the game of the year, every year. Lets get right to the matchups that will determine this showdown
When Denver has the ball:
Lets cut to the chase: Denver is going to score some points. The Kansas City Chiefs and their top-ranked scoring defense manage to hold Denver to a season-low of 27 last week. Again, the lowest score of Denver's season so far is 27. They are going to make plays and they are going to score points.
However, the Patriots offense is looking pretty good itself now that it has its weapons back. Therefore, the task of the defense will be to slow down the Broncos, make them work for their yards, and to get enough stops to give the offense a chance.
So, how do you slow down Manning and this offense? Conventional wisdom says to play physical and try to get some hits on Manning early. Peyton has been playing through a high ankle sprain, which would be much more noticeable if he had any speed to lose in the first place. His offensive line had some issues protecting Manning earlier in the year, but they are coming off of a great showing against that vaunted Chiefs front.
Manning and the Broncos have essentially neutralized that weakness by using a lot of short, timing passes to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Therefore, pressure will have to come almost immediately to have an impact on the Denver offense. It will be essential for the Patriots to make the most of whatever opportunities they have to get to Manning. A couple of hits, a fumble, maybe a rushed pass leading to an interception...anything to slow the offense down will be sorely needed.
By this point, we all know about the number of injuries in the Patriots secondary. Regardless of who's out there, it will be key to play physical with Denver's receivers, particularly at the line of scrimmage. Forcing the receivers to fight through jams can disrupt the timing of Denver's offense, which is essential considering all the weaponry Manning has at his disposal. You know the names: Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas. They are all having phenomenal years and all are difficult to matchup with.
The importance of Aqib Talib this week, presuming he toughs it and is on the field, cannot be overstated. Not only is Talib the Patriots best cover corner by far, but he's also the only corner on the roster with the size to match up with the 6'3", 229 lb Demaryius Thomas. Talib had a tough time with the smaller Steve Smith last week, but this matchup is more similar to his battles with Julio Jones and AJ Green earlier this season. The Patriots need a big bounce back game from Talib in the worst way.
Another key for the defense will be sound tackling. The Broncos use their short passing game to quickly get the ball in the hands of their weapons, counting on the receivers to then generate yards after the catch. Pats fans are well aware of what Welker can do with the ball in his hands, and Demaryius Thomas is one of the most physically dominant playmakers in football. Without good tackling, a slip screen out to Thomas or Welker can turn from a short gain to a big play. The Patriots tackling has been solid most of the season. It will need to be excellent on Sunday night.
I haven't even gotten to Denver's running game, which has done a very good job of taking advantage of the matchups Peyton's aerial attack creates. Peyton has shown no hesistation in calling for runs against lighter, nickel defenses, and has been rewarded with a strong season from former first round pick Knowshon Moreno. Rookie Montee Ball has also played well recently and is coming off of a two touchdown night against KC.
The Patriots struggling run defense actually performed pretty well (excluding QB scrambles) last week against Carolina, but also ran a lot of base defense to combat the Panthers generally run-heavy attack. However, the Patriots will be forced to play more nickel, and as a result will be forced to have to stop the run out of their nickel package. Simply put, the onus will be on the defensive line to hold their ground on those plays, while the linebackers will have to be fast, instinctive and tackle well. The Patriots could really use a breakout game from Donta Hightower on this front, who stands out on the field far less than someone with his size and talent should.
One other note: Denver's ball security is a little bit of an under-the-radar weakness of this offense. The Broncs already have 21 fumbles on the year, including 8 from Manning. The Patriots 36 game streak of forcing a turnover was snapped last week, but getting back on track with a takeaway or two could be key in what should be a close game.
When the Patriots have the ball:
The Patriots offense is coming off of two straight strong games. They'll have to continue to excel to keep pace with Denver's prolific offense.
The statistics are skewed a bit by how often Denver plays with the lead, but it's clear that the Broncos are a little bit vulnerable against the pass. They've given up some big passing games already this year (remember Tony Romo threw for 500 yards against them) and are dealing with a few injuries in the secondary. Starting safety Rahim Moore is out indefinitely with a leg injury suffered last week against the Chiefs, while cornerback Champ Bailey is questionable with a foot problem.
The Patriots offense, now that it finally has all it's weapons, is good enough to succeed regardless of who lines up across from them. Like Denver, the Patriots simply have too many weapons to cover and a legendary quarterback to run the show and distribute the ball. For example, linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan are very athletic, but can they hold up in coverage against the likes of Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski? Doubtful.
One thing that should concern the Patriots is the terrific pass rushing duo of Von Miller and Shaun Phillips. Miller needs no introduction, as he is one of the best and most disruptive players in all of football. He's the type of player who can single-handedly wreck a game plan. On the other side, Phillips arrival from San Diego has helped offset the offseason loss of Elvis Dumervil, as he already has 9 sacks this season. It will be imperative that the Patriots tackles handle Denver's pass rush and don't let them disrupt Tom Brady's rhythm.
Another thing to watch is how the Broncos decide to matchup with the Patriots receivers. Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie is their top corner, but at 6'2" the Broncos might opt to match him up with the bigger Aaron Dobson. That could leave Chris Harris or Tony Carter to handle Danny Amendola, a matchup that clearly favors the Patriots.
Finally, the Patriots need to be able to stay balanced on offense and run the ball. Like Denver, New England does a great job of using it's offensive weaponry to force teams into favorable running matchups against nickel defense. The Pats have run effectively all year and could find running the ball a good way to control the clock and limit Manning's time on the field.
Of course, winning the turnover battle will be incredibly important. Stevan Ridley is clearly the team's most effective runner, but his fumble last week against the Panthers proved to be very costly. All signs point to Ridley getting the ball again this week, but he. must. hold. onto. the. ball. this. week.
Couple of things of note here: It will be interesting to see how the cold weather affects the kicking game. Cold weather generally leads to shorter kicks and more chances for returns. The Patriots (finally) had Josh Boyce active as a return man last week, but the rookie speedster never got a chance to return one. That could change this week.
Broncos return man Trindon Holliday is one of the most dynamic returners in all of football. He also has some very legitimate ball security issues, with three fumbles already this year. Again, turnovers could play a big role in what should be a close, back-and-forth game. It's the type of matchup in which a big game-changing play could come from special teams.
Bill Belichick vs Jack Del Rio is a massive mismatch. Fortunately for the Broncos, Peyton Manning is a pretty damn good offensive coordinator who can help close the gap a little bit. Still going with Belichick on this one. Injuries:
Ah yes, injuries. Both teams are dealing with some significant injuries, although the Patriots certainly have sustained more losses over the course of the season.
Wes Welker's concussion has received the most media attention this week, but it will be a major surprise to just about everyone if he isn't out on the field. The Welkah watch has allowed Julius Thomas to fly a little under the radar, which is amazing considering the tight end already has 10 touchdowns this season. Thomas has been limited in practice this week and is tentatively expected to play with a knee injury. Whether or not he has the same explosiveness that has made him a breakout star is another issue entirely. Thomas' backup, Joel Dreesen, is also questionable with a knee injury. Jacob Tamme is the third tight end on the depth chart.
On the Patriots side, it's hard to predict much of anything at this point. Alfonzo Dennard has practiced with his knee injury, but it would be surprising to see him back so quickly after getting his knee scoped. Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are both battling through nagging hip and groin injuries respectively. I would tentatively expect both to be out there, but whether they can make it through the entire game unscathed is unknown. Starting safety Steve Gregory has returned to practice this week as well and looks like he could play despite his broken thumb. And, of course, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo aren't walking through that door.