By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It’s technically been a short week for the Patriots, but with all the hype that always builds the anticipation of a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning duel, the wait for this game to kick off has felt like a football eternity.

As we inch closer to kickoff, here are four items to watch for when the Broncos and Patriots take the field Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

Winter Weather
You can watch for this, but you’re in New England, you’re more likely to feel it.

It’s going to be cold — real cold — when this game beings after 8 p.m. on Sunday night. Forecasts call for temperatures in the teens, but with the 20 mph winds, it will feel more like single digits.

This factor should conceivably hurt Manning and the Broncos, considering the quarterback has never played well in cold weather and also hasn’t been able to get too much zip on his throws since his return last year from the neck injury that sidelined him in 2011. The blustery conditions may disrupt that passing game, enough to give the Patriots a little help in keeping up with the Broncos on the scoreboard.

Wes Welker
From 2007-2012, no player put more on the line for the Patriots every week than Wes Welker. Despite that, the Patriots and Welker parted ways after last season, with both sides holding a little bit of blame for the break-up.

Nevertheless, former players haven’t typically received warm welcomes in their return to Foxboro. If Adam Vinatieri gets booed, it seems likely that Welker will receive the same treatment.

Fan reaction aside, Welker presents a rather impossible challenge for the Patriots’ defense. Like most defenses, there’s nobody on the Patriots who can cover Welker 1-on-1, so you know that he’ll get his share of receptions. The key will be limiting Welker’s room to run after making catches and trying to swarm him on third down, when he’s so dangerous.

You just know that the 68,00 fans in attendance will have their stomachs turn if they see Welker come up big with a touchdown in his old stomping grounds. Preventing that from happening won’t be easy for the Pats’ D.

Manning’s Record Pace
The single-season touchdown record once belonged to Peyton Manning. Then it belonged to Tom Brady. Now, Manning appears to be gunning to get his record back. All that’s missing is a giant mustachioed man with a nail sticking out of his head yelling, “I believe that’s Mr. Manning’s.”

Manning enters Sunday night’s game with 34 touchdowns in 10 games, on pace to throw 54 touchdowns, which would smash Brady’s current record of 50. However, that pace slowed last week, when Manning threw just one touchdown against the Chiefs. Prior to that game, he had been on pace to throw 59 touchdowns, so it will be up to Brady’s teammates to try to limit Manning and preserve that record. Here’s a look at what they can do:

If Manning throws zero touchdowns:
His pace will drop to 49 touchdowns.
If Manning throws one touchdown:
His pace will drop to 51 touchdowns.
If Manning throws two touchdowns:
His pace will stay at 54 touchdowns.
If Manning throws three touchdowns:
His pace will increase to 55 touchdowns.
If Manning throws four touchdowns … he’ll almost certainly retake that record by the end of the year.

Of course, he won’t have his home dome in December anymore to fill up the stats, and with four of his last six games being outdoors in cold weather, there’s a chance the “pace” is a bit artificial. Still, the Patriots will be doing their darndest to keep Manning out of the end zone on Sunday, and in doing so they’ll be fighting for their own quarterback’s record.

Secondary A Primary Concern
I apologize for being perhaps the 3,000th person in history to use that awful headline. Let’s try that again.

Banged-Up Secondary
Eh, it lacks in creativity, but it is no doubt a serious concern for the Patriots. There’s never a good week to have a hobbled secondary, but entering a game against Manning’s passing attack with question marks across the board is surely as bad as timing can get.

Aqib Talib is questionable with a hip injury. Kyle Arrington is questionable with a groin problem. Alfonzo Dennard is officially questionable but reportedly out after he underwent a minor knee procedure last weekend. Steve Gregory is questionable after missing last week’s game with a broken thumb suffered three weeks ago. That’s a rough look for the members of the secondary, considering they’ll be tasked with covering Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas.

Talib did not look his best last week, raising concerns about the severity of that hip issue and whether it will be able to fully heal this year. And Arrington didn’t look himself in letting Ted Ginn slip away for the winning touchdown in Carolina on Monday night. Gregory is sure to be a bit rusty, as he was wearing a cast on his hand until midweek.

But they’ll all have to be at their best for the Patriots to be able to compete in this game, and their health — and consequently, their effectiveness — is by far the biggest question mark the Patriots have heading into Sunday.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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