It just would not be a true NFL season without a storyline that featured Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Last year, many reprimanded me for saying I actually “missed” Manning because something (or someone) seemed absent from the Patriot’s schedule. More so, maybe I even desired his return to football after a season-ending neck injury….secretly, of course.
And now, like a good (or bad) memory, it is all coming back to me. That feeling of angst. Dread. Anger. Fervor, and hope that this match-up will mirror past instant classics. Last week, the Patriots saved their early season with a much needed win in Buffalo, only now to try and hurdle an obstacle that has been in their way for the past decade.
So, it all begins again. Here is a quick preview of what the Patriots must do to beat Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos this Sunday at Gillette Stadium (4:25 pm EST).
Patriots on Offense
The Patriots exploded for 45 points last January in a lopsided Divisional playoff win against then Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos. They went up 35-7 at half time, all but officially ending Tebowmania and cashing their ticket to the AFC Championship game.
However, this is not the same Denver team. At all.
This team’s defense, led by John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will look to better contain Brady. And to do so, they bring a plethora of talent.
Their secondary is led by ex-New Orleans Saint Tracey Porter (13 tkles, 1 int), 14-year veteran Champ Bailey and safety Rahim Moore (25 tkles). Their front seven is heavy with stud talents like linebackers Von Miller (15 tkles, 3 sks), Elvis Dumervile (2.5 sks, 1 ff) and Wesley Woodyard (26 tkles, 1.5 sks), as well as rookie lineman Derek Wolfe (10 tkles, 1 sk).
Already this year, this group has either produced or helped produce 10 sacks. Denver loves to blitz. They have sent 5 or more rushers this season 42 percent of the time—that is good enough for third highest in the league. Nonetheless, when rushed by 5 or more pass rushers this season, Tom Brady has a plus-4 touchdown-to-interception differential and is completing 6.3 yards per carry (courtesy of ESPN statistics).
This is where the Patriot’s strengths lie. Take advantage of Denver’s aggressiveness.
In previous columns, we have noted how the Patriot’s offensive line was starting to coalesce; and in last Sunday’s match-up against Buffalo, they put on their best show of the year—An Emmy winning performance. Add the offensive line's growing stability to Tom Brady’s aptitude to eat up defenses when they rush more than 5 defenders and Denver could struggle mightily. Keyword…”could.”
Patriots on Defense
Good luck to the Patriot’s secondary….
Since 2008, not including his lost-to-injury 2011 season, Peyton Manning has averaged 325 passing yards against the Patriots. That is a tough day at the office for New England.
This year, again, the Patriot’s secondary ranks a paltry 25th overall in the league and is relinquishing roughly 282 passing yards per game. However, this number is somewhat skewed: In weeks 1-2, the Patriots only gave up roughly 200 passing yards per game. It was not until they faced the Raven’s and Bills more potent passing attacks that, that number soared.
To help themselves, lineman Vince Wilfork and Kyle love, as well as linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes must shut down veteran running back Willis McGahee (325 yds, 69 car, 4.7 yd avg). They must also prevent change-of-pace running back Ronnie Hillman from having a break out game. By doing so, the Patriots can contain Manning’s play-action pass and make Denver’s defense one-dimensional, which will shrink the field.
There is, however, a significant difference between the Patriot’s defense this year and in the past. This season, they finally have some consistent rushers. Their pass rush is not perfect, but rising star and NFL defensive rookie of the month, Chandler Jones, offers them much needed pressure off the edge. Linebacker/Defensive End Jermaine Cunningham, a surprise stand out, has drawn 3 holding penalties in 4 games and provides some extra pressure in the sub-defense, as well.
--Also, look for Rob Ninkovich (13 tkles, 1.4 sks, 1 ff) to prove me wrong again this week. I’m still not sold on his defensive-line capabilities, but I reserve the right to change my opinion when he has a million sacks by week 10. #donotcountonit.
Players to watch on the Bronco’s offense include emerging star wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (21 rec, 325 yds, 2 td), as well as wide outs Eric Decker (24 rec, 322 yds, 1 td) and former Indianapolis Colt Brandon Stokley (13 rec, 58 yds, 1 td). This season, Demaryius Thomas already has 6 catches for 20 yards or more and the Patriot’s defense is susceptible to conceding long pass plays.
If the Patriots want to score points, they must hold off Denver’s pass rush—solid offensive line play while taking advantage of Denver's aggressiveness will do the trick. This week, I am more confident the Patriots can protect Brady based on their successful performances against the Ravens and Bills.
And simply…New England must contain the ultimate strategist, Peyton Manning.
What are your "keys" to this game? Will the Patriots attack Denver's pass rush with an aerial assault or look to run hard through the numbers? How will they contain old nemesis Peyton Manning?