The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.
The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?
Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game. Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.
Three keys for the Patriots:
1. Protect Brady
It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.
2. Continue the balanced offensive attack
Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.
3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game
While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.
Three keys for the Broncos:
1. Safety play is key
It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.
2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary
After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.
3. Hold on to the ball.
The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.
Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.