The Patriots finally will get a taste this Sunday night of what it has been like for the other 31 NFL teams to face the Patriots.
The prime-time showdown against the Broncos could be one of the final chapters of the legendary Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry, with Brady holding a 9-4 edge.
And when the Patriots look across the field at the opposing sideline, they’ll see a dominant team that looks a lot like the Patriots teams from 2007-12.
The Broncos have a high-powered offense that is first in the NFL in points per game (39.8). And they have a shaky defense that is playing better of late, but still allows too many yards and points.
The result is a team that is 9-1, currently holds the No. 1 seed in the AFC,
On offense, the Broncos really do resemble recent Patriots squads, minus the fact that Manning’s arm strength is clearly declining while Brady still possesses one of the stronger arms in the league.
They have a likely Hall of Fame quarterback who can manipulate the defense before the snap, fool a defense with a quick snap, and strike it big from anywhere on the field. Manning, 37, is currently on pace for 54 touchdowns, which would break Brady’s NFL record of 50, and more than 5,700 passing yards (he never has cracked 5,000 in his career).
The Broncos have dominant weapons on the outside, featuring, of course, former Patriot Wes Welker, who is trucking right along with 61 catches for 648 yards and nine touchdowns, although his availability is in doubt after suffering a concussion last week.
“I think Wes looks like Wes, like the player we’ve seen,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “Most of the time he lines [up] in the slot and he plays like we’ve all seen him play around here for the time he was here.”
If Welker isn’t open or can’t play, Demaryius Thomas (914 yards, nine touchdowns) and Eric Decker (792 yards, three touchdowns) certainly can pick up the slack.
They have an athletic freak at tight end in Julius Thomas, who is second in the NFL with 10 touchdowns but is currently dealing with a knee injury. And they have a serviceable running game headed by fifth-year pro Knowshon Moreno, who has 600 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 4.0 yards per carry.
The Broncos mix and match personnel throughout the game and usually have a new wrinkle every week — just like the Patriots often do. The offensive line has some issues, with left tackle Ryan Clady (foot) and center Dan Koppen (ACL) suffering season-ending injuries and left guard Zane Beadles having a bad season in pass protection.
Still, Manning has only been sacked 13 times in 10 games, third-fewest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.
“Adam Gase, the offensive coordinator working with Peyton out there, has just done a great job of really giving you a variety of different looks,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “Their offensive line is obviously doing a good job of keeping everybody away from him, and Peyton does an extremely good job of getting rid of the ball, understanding pressure, understanding the rush, understanding coverage, and knowing where to go with the ball very quickly.”
But the game could end up being a track meet, because Denver’s defense is definitely vulnerable — ranked 23d in yards allowed and points (25.5 per game). But the rankings also can be a bit misleading — the Broncos are often ahead by so many points that teams accumulate a lot of garbage yards and points in the second half (sound familiar?). The Broncos also haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer in five games, and have allowed 21 or fewer points in four of those five games. The Broncos have the fourth-best run defense, but that’s also because teams are usually throwing against them in the second half. They have allowed 100-plus rushing yards in four straight games, however.
The Broncos’ pass rush isn’t as ferocious as it was last year, when they led the league with 52 sacks. But they’re still a respectable 13th this season with 29 sacks. Former Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips, 32, has done an admirable job filling in for the departed Elvis Dumervil and leads the team with 9½ sacks. They also have gotten at least four sacks from defensive ends Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe, and Malik Jackson, and linebacker Von Miller has two sacks since returning from a six-game suspension.
The Broncos also have a lot of size up front — Ayers and Wolfe are both more than 285 pounds, big for the position, while tackle Kevin Vickerson is 328 pounds and Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton is 335.
They have a couple of smallish, quicker linebackers in Danny Trevathan (three interceptions) and Wesley Woodyard, who could have a tough time dealing with Rob Gronkowski. And the secondary has some notable names but is hobbled with injuries.
Long-time cornerback Champ Bailey has only played six quarters this year with a foot injury and may not be ready Sunday night. Safety Rahim Moore also will miss Sunday’s game after undergoing leg surgery Monday. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is having a solid season in pass coverage with two interceptions and 13 passes defended, but he is surrounded by youngsters and career backups in Tony Carter, Chris Harris, Mike Adams, and Duke Ihenacho.