By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots will try to solidify their lead in the AFC East when they meet the Denver Broncos Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. This game is a much-anticipated matchup of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who will be facing each other in an NFL game for the 14th time. Brady holds a 9-4 advantage over Manning in those games, including a 2-1 record in the playoffs. It will be their second meeting since Manning left the Indianapolis Colts and joined the Denver Broncos in 2012.
The Broncos enter this game with a 9-1 record. Their only loss of the season came in Week Seven to the Indianapolis Colts 39-33 on October 20. The Broncos/Patriots rivalry dates back to Sept. 9, 1960, when the teams met in the inaugural game of the American Football League. Denver defeated the then-Boston Patriots in that game 13-10. Denver leads the all-time series 27-19, including a 2-1 lead in the playoffs, but New England won the most recent meeting 31-21 at Gillette on October 7, 2012.
Broncos on Offense
Manning is having perhaps the greatest season ever achieved by an NFL quarterback. He is currently on pace to break Brady’s 2007 record of 50 touchdown passes in a single season, and he might break the single-season passing yardage record of 5,476 set by Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints in 2011. The only way to slow down Manning is to attack him with a relentless pass rush, but he is so adept at recognizing where the rush is coming from that it’s often impossible to get any real pressure on him.
Making Manning even more dangerous than usual is his talented core of receivers. Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and former Patriot Wes Welker have each caught more than 50 passes this season. Wes Welker suffered a concussion in the Broncos defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs and his game-time availability has not yet been confirmed against the Pats. Manning is also supported by an outstanding running back in Knowshon Moreno, who has rushed for 600 yards and eight touchdowns this year. Moreno has also caught 37 passes with one touchdown reception.
This is a team with seemingly no offensive weakness. The Broncos are ranked first in the NFL in passing offense (350.4 YPG), total offense (455.5 YPG) and scoring offense (39.8 PPG).
Broncos on Defense
Denver’s defense is much better than it looks statistically. The unit is ranked only 22nd in the league in total defense and 28th in passing defense, but only because it tends to play a soft zone defense late in games while protecting big leads. For this same reason, the Broncos are ranked fourth in rushing defense, giving up only 92.7 rushing yards per game. Denver’s prolific offense forces opposing teams to abandon the run game rather quickly.
Eight different players on the Broncos have combined for 29 sacks, which ranks 13th in the NFL. Linebacker Shaun Phillips leads the team with nine sacks. The team also has 13 interceptions, led by cornerback Chris Harris and linebacker Danny Trevathan with three apiece.
This game is critical for New England’s playoff position. Thanks to Monday’s 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots are currently in position for the number three seed in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots and the Colts currently share 7-3 records, but the Colts hold the tiebreaker advantage with a superior conference record (5-2 vs. 4-2).
Unfortunately for New England, thanks in part to their banged-up defense, it seems unlikely that the Patriots will keep the Broncos below 40 points, and while the Patriots offense is improving, it simply doesn’t have the same explosiveness as Denver’s offense. This game might end up being a shootout, but the Broncos will probably prove that Las Vegas oddsmakers were correct when they made New England a home underdog for the first time since 2005.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.