Two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history will be on display tonight when the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots face off at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Besides the unavoidable comparisons between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, this game also features a matchup of division leaders with the Broncos (9-1) in front in the AFC West after beating the Chiefs last week and the Patriots (7-3) maintaining their usual position atop the AFC East.
These two teams last played each other in Week 5 of the 2012 season. That game, like this one, was at Gillette Stadium and the Patriots won 31-21 behind a balanced offensive attack that produced 444 total yards, 251 of those on the ground. The leading receiver for the home team that game was Wes Welker, who caught 13 passes for 104 yards and Brady’s lone touchdown. Welker is now a Bronco and despite suffering a concussion last week, he is expected to play against his former team. This adds yet another layer to a game full of interesting subplots.
4 Things to Watch
Manning vs. Brady, Round 14
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have already secured busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, when their careers are over. These two have already accounted for a combined 110,000 yards passing and 818 touchdown passes, and have won nearly 72 percent of their games, including playoffs. They have been to 20 Pro Bowls and claim six of the 15 MVP trophies that have been awarded since Manning’s rookie season in 1998. And of course there are the Super Bowl rings. Brady has three, Manning has one and each has been named MVP after starring on the NFL’s biggest stage. Even though they didn’t enter the league in the same season (Manning 1998, Brady 2000), these two will forever be linked, which is why their head-to-head matchups draw so much attention and scrutiny. Including the playoffs, this will be the 14th time Manning and Brady have met on the field. Among Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, the only two that have gone head-to-head more are Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas (16 games). As it relates to Manning vs. Brady, the Patriots’ signal-caller holds a 9-4 edge, including 6-2 at home. In addition to the win-loss column, Brady also holds a statistical edge over Manning when it comes to completion percentage (66.9 to 62.4) and quarterback rating (95.3 to 86.7). Last season, even though the Broncos lost 31-21, Manning had arguably one of his best games against the Patriots, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. This season, it’s pretty clear that Manning has a better supporting cast around him compared to Brady, but Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has done a good job of constructing effective defensive game plans against No. 18 in the past. Brady’s numbers may not be what we are accustomed to seeing, but the Patriots are still winning and he’s looking more and more comfortable in the pocket with each game now that all of his pass-catchers are back and relatively healthy. Either way, both quarterbacks will have a big say in how this game plays out, just as has been the case in their previous 13 meetings.
Broncos’ Weapons Check
Denver is No. 1 in the NFL in both total (350.4 ypg) and scoring (39.8 ppg) offense, and the gap between the Broncos and No. 2 in both categories is pretty wide. Five different players – wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker, tight end Julius Thomas and running back Knowshon Moreno – have caught at least 37 passes this season. Demaryius and Julius Thomas and Welker have combined for 28 touchdown catches. Welker, who was Brady’s favorite target for six seasons in New England, sustained a concussion last week, but he is expected to be cleared in plenty of time to face his former teammates. The Broncos aren’t just a passing team, however, as Moreno leads the way with 600 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on the ground. Second-round draft pick Montee Ball also has emerged recently, scoring three rushing touchdowns over his last three games. Peyton Manning is still dealing with a lingering ankle injury, but his offensive line did an outstanding job protecting him (no sacks, no hits) against Kansas City’s ferocious pass rush last week. When given the time, Manning has a plethora of weapons to choose from and it will be interesting to see how he and offensive coordinator Adam Gase attack a banged-up Patriots defense (see below) tonight.
Patriots’ Weapons Check
As far as New England’s offense goes, Wes Welker’s departure via free agency was just one of the many personnel developments that took place during the offseason. Although the Patriots signed former St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola to take Welker’s place, the summer saw tight end Rob Gronkowski undergo back surgery in June. Not too long after, fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder and other crimes, which led to his release. Gronk didn’t return to the field until Week 7, which left Tom Brady with an unfamiliar group of pass-catchers at the start of the season. In Week 1, the Patriots’ wide receiving corps consisted of Julian Edelman, the lone holdover from the 2012 season, Amendola and rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Not surprisingly, Brady had just eight touchdown passes in his first six games. Injuries didn’t help Brady develop chemistry with his receivers either, as Amendola missed some time with a groin injury and later a concussion. It wasn’t until recently that Brady was able to practice with his full complement of pass-catchers, so the hope is that the passing game will find a little more consistency and rhythm. The ground game also has had its struggles, as Stevan Ridley, last season’s leading rusher, got off to a slow start in 2013 and has dealt with some injury issues of his own. The Patriots have been content to employ a running-back-by-committee, as Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen all have carried the ball at least 15 times. The all-hands-on-deck strategy has worked for the most part with the Patriots ranking ninth in the league in rushing offense (126.9 ypg). So even though this may not be a vintage, Brady-led offense, the Patriots are eighth in the league in scoring at nearly 25 points per game. The Broncos average nearly 40 points per game and their season-low output is 27 points, so Brady and company will need to find a way to move the ball and put some points on the board against a Denver defense that has been playing pretty well lately.
New England’s Feeling the Hurt on Defense
The Patriots’ uniforms may be red, white and blue (and silver), but their defense is definitely black and blue thanks to a slew of injuries. Bill Belichick’s defense looks more like a M.A.S.H. unit right now, as the current two-deep looks nothing like what he had at his disposal in Week 1. All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are both out for the season, as is tackle Tommy Kelly and safety Adrian Wilson. Four current starters and one key reserve appear on this week’s injury report, including three defensive backs. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Steve Gregory both missed last week’s loss in Carolina, and are questionable for tonight’s game. Aqib Talib, the other starting cornerback, had to leave the Monday night game against the Panthers early after re-aggravating a hip injury that caused him to miss the three previous games. Stopping Denver’s high-octane task is a difficult task in and of itself, but now New England must figure out a way to do so with a defense that isn’t anywhere close to full strength. Belichick is a master tactician when it comes to defensive game plans and he has had his share of success against Peyton Manning. However, with so many injuries severely limiting his depth, especially in the secondary, Belichick may not be able to rely on complicated schemes and multiple alignments. In fact, he may have a hard enough time finding 11 healthy bodies to put on the field.
Denver Key Players: Von Miller, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan, LBs
Not only are Miller, Woodyard and Trevathan the Broncos’ starting linebackers, they are the heart and soul of this defense. Miller, who finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, missed the first six games of this season due to suspension. Since his return in Week 7, Denver is allowing 318.3 yards and 24.3 points per game. Miller’s pass-rushing ability (2.0 sacks in four games) has made the most difference, especially when it comes to the Broncos’ ability to consistently pressure the quarterback. They have 12 sacks over their last four games and also have picked off four passes. This also is a big reason why Denver has given up only 191.3 yards passing per game during this span. New England has given up 28 sacks this season, and Miller is definitely someone the offensive line and running backs will have to account for. Woodyard and Trevathan are the leading tacklers on the team and also are extremely active in pass coverage. The duo has combined for 11 passes defended, while Trevathan also has three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Both fly to the ball and are key to the Broncos’ efforts to control the middle of the field. Trevathan in particular will probably be matched up on tight end Rob Gronkowski several times during this game. If Denver’s linebacking corps is making plays all over the field, especially behind the line of scrimmage, then it could be a long night for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense.
New England Key Player: Chandler Jones, DE
Injuries have not been kind to the Patriots’ defense this season. Already down four starters, including All-Pros Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, five others defenders are listed on this week’s injury report. Of those, four are starters and the other is a key reserve in the secondary. Up front, Jones has teamed with fellow defensive end Rob Ninkovich to anchor the Patriots’ pass rush. Jones leads the team with 9.5 sacks while Ninkovich has five along with two forced fumbles and two recoveries. Jones also Is second on the team in tackles, which is rare for a defensive lineman. Peyton Manning has been sacked just 13 times and wasn’t even touched last week by Kansas City’s No. 1-ranked pass rush. With all of the injuries in the Patriots’ back seven, it’s critical that Jones and Ninkovich get pressure on Manning and also make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. Otherwise the Broncos’ offense could very hard for this banged-up defense to slow down.
All attention is on the quarterbacks, which is understandable since Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are two of the best to ever play the position. However, the 11-man units that will line up on the other side of these two will play just as big a role in determining tonight’s outcome.
Denver’s defense has been a different unit since the return of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller. His presence, as well as his athleticism, non-stop motor and pass-rushing ability has had the biggest impact on the Broncos’ pass defense. On the other side, New England is missing its play-making linebacker in Jerod Mayo, and also is without several other key defenders.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are very tough to beat at home and both have had their share of success against Manning in the past. But that was then and this is now. I just think Manning has too many weapons and the Patriots’ defense has too many injuries, which will cause it to wear down as the game goes on. Manning does a good job of spreading the wealth, but he makes sure that Wes Welker gets a touchdown against his former team as the Broncos pick up their 10th win of the season.
Denver 34, New England 30