By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots will take on their biggest challenge of the season when the defending AFC Champion Denver Broncos come to Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon. The teams were the top two seeds in the AFC Playoffs last season and they are currently on track to occupy those same positions next season.
The Broncos hold a 6-1 record, putting them alone in first place in the AFC West. Denver’s only loss came in Week 3 at CenturyLink Field, where the Broncos fell to the Seatle Seahawks 26-20 in a rematch of Super Bowl XLVIII. Since then, the Broncos have won four straight games, including last Sunday’s 35-21 win over the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field.
The Broncos/Patriots rivalry dates back to the inaugural game of the American Football League on Sept. 9, 1960, when the Broncos defeated the then-Boston Patriots 13-10 at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. Denver leads the all-time series 28-20, including a 3-1 lead in the playoffs. In the Peyton Manning/Tom Brady quarterback rivalry (including Manning’s time with the Indianapolis Colts), Manning trails Brady 5-10 overall, but quarterbacks are tied 2-2 in the postseason. Manning and the Broncos won the most recent meeting in a 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field on Jan. 19, 2014.
Broncos on Offense
Manning, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever to play in the NFL, is still on top of his game at the age of 38. Throughout his career, he’s been able to win games regardless of the quality of his supporting cast, but with Denver he has a huge complement of talented weapons at his disposal. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are both ranked in the top five in the league in receiving yards, while former Patriots receiver Wes Welker is still dangerous in the slot. Virtually unstoppable in the red zone is tight end Julius Thomas, who is tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns with nine.
As if the passing game weren’t enough, the Broncos are also dangerous on the ground. As a team, the Broncos are ranked only 20th in the league in rushing yards per game (101.4), but running back Ronnie Hillman is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, which makes Denver’s play-action passing game extra dangerous. Hillman is also adept at catching the ball out of the backfield if Manning other options aren’t available to him.
Broncos On Defense
Linebacker Von Miller is making a solid case to be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He is second in the NFL in sacks with nine, and he would probably have more if his teammate, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, didn’t have seven sacks of his own. Miller currently holds a sack streak of six consecutive games.
Although Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the league, the Broncos’ run defense is its real strength. On the ground, Denver gives up only 72.4 yards per game, which leads the NFL. Denver’s front seven is so strong that it often seems as if there’s nothing left for the secondary to do, but safety Rahim Moore and cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib (another former Patriot) have combined for all seven of the team’s interceptions.
In last year’s regular season meeting, the Patriots overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit to somehow defeat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime. If New England falls behind by multiple scores this year, it seems unlikely that the team will be able to come back again. Now that tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy, wide receiver Brandon LaFell is becoming a serious threat and the offensive line is playing well, it appears that Brady has enough help to be able to score points on Denver. However, New England’s defense has struggled to stop the run all season, so that liability, rather than Manning’s arm, may be what skews the game in favor of the Broncos.
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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