FOXBOROUGH — When downloading their players’ iPads this week with game video of the Broncos marching up and down the field and scoring at near-record pace, the defensive coaches for the Patriots might have been tempted to slip a short Hollywood quote into the electronic devices.
“Your task, should you choose to accept it . . . ”
It might not be “Mission: Impossible” when the Broncos visit Gillette Stadium Sunday night for a key AFC game, but the Patriots’ defense sure has its work cut out. The assignment: Slowing an offense led by a four-time NFL MVP having his best season ever. Figuring out a way to stop a certain slot receiver who is making the same plays this season that he made for the Patriots the previous six. Keeping an eye on three other receivers who have at least 45 receptions.
The toughest part: Doing all this on a short week, without two defensive captains, and with a banged-up secondary short on healthy bodies.
“I think we’re being tested as a football team in general: Coming off a tough game, and now going against one of the best teams in the NFL this year,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
The Broncos have been on cruise control much of the year, scoring at least 27 points in all 10 games of their 9-1 start. They’ve scored at least 30 points eight times, gone past 40 five times, and reached 50 twice. They entertained even in defeat, scoring 33 points at Indianapolis, the first time quarterback Peyton Manning has played against the team that drafted him, and where he spent his first 14 NFL seasons. He nearly rallied his team from a 19-point second-half deficit, with the Broncos coming up just short, 39-33.
The Manning-led Broncos offense has been so effective, so efficient, that it leads the league in multiple statistical categories, including three of the most important: points scored (398), yards gained (4,555), and passing yards (3,504).
Manning is putting up numbers that are difficult to duplicate, even on a video game. He is on pace to break the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season (Tom Brady threw 50 in 2007; Manning, with 34, is on pace to throw 54). He is also on pace to break Drew Brees’s season record for yards passing (5,476; Manning is on pace for 5,606), and is within reach of Brees’s record for completion percentage (71.2; Manning is completing 69.9 percent).
When it comes to passing the football, the Broncos are turning it into an art form, complicated — from a defensive standpoint — by Manning having so many dangerous receivers to throw to. Former Patriot Wes Welker (61), Demaryius Thomas (60), Eric Decker (54), and Julius Thomas (45) have combined for 2,944 yards and 31 touchdowns. They could each top 1,000 receiving yards for the season.
“You’ve got to damn near play a perfect game against a team like that, so everybody’s got to do more film study, get in the [play] book more. Everybody’s got to up their level of play,” said cornerback Marquice Cole. “The Broncos and their offensive success is not just geared toward one person. They’ve got everybody that’s basically a target to get the ball and can make big plays. You can’t zero in on one or two guys.”
As McCourty noted: “Their best guy is a bunch of guys.”
With the Broncos featuring that kind of receiving arsenal, the Patriots could use a full complement of players in the secondary. They’ll likely be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who missed Monday’s game and recently had a surgical procedure on his knee. They might get back safety Steve Gregory, who also missed Monday’s game with a broken thumb but has returned to practice. Cornerback Aqib Talib left Monday’s game when his hip tightened up.
If the Patriots are banged up — and they appear to be — a veteran quarterback like Manning will use that to his advantage.
“I’d say pretty much wherever the defense looks vulnerable, they’ll attack you with whichever players they want to attack with, and they have a lot of them,” coach Bill Belichick said.
So how to go about slowing the Broncos down?
A pass rush would be nice, but Manning has perhaps the quickest release in the league. The Chiefs came into last week’s game against the Broncos with a league-high 36 sacks. They never got a finger on Manning, who threw for 343 yards and a touchdown in the 27-17 win.
Being physical with the receivers, then, could be beneficial. But the Broncos present a wide range of size and skill sets when it comes to pass-catchers. Welker is listed at 5 feet 9 inches, 185 pounds; Decker and Demaryius Thomas both go 6-3, while Julius Thomas, the tight end, is 6-5, 250. They’re all difficult matchups.
“You just have to make them earn everything that they get,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “You can’t give up big plays.”
Much of the spotlight, assuming he plays, will be on Welker, who signed a two-year deal with Denver after six wildly successful seasons with the Patriots. Welker suffered a concussion in Sunday’s win and will need to get medical clearance, but he practiced Thursday. The Patriots, who saw firsthand how valuable Welker can be to an offense as one of the league’s top slot receivers, are expecting him to play.
“Wes is Wes. I don’t care what you do, you’ve got to go out there and guard him each and every play,” Cole said. “Wes is such a fierce competitor, if you get him one play, you can’t be like, ‘OK, I’ve got him down,’ because he’s going to come out and do something totally different the next play.”
Cole and the other defensive backs practiced against Welker every day, so they know what he likes and what he doesn’t. But Welker is not the only defensive focus. It starts with Manning, and includes a number of players who have caught a whole bunch of passes for a whole bunch of touchdowns. We haven’t even mentioned the Denver running game; Knowshon Moreno has 600 rushing yards (Stevan Ridley leads the Patriots with 562) and eight touchdowns, and has added 37 catches for 336 yards.
Add it all up, and the Broncos present a daunting mission for an opposing defense. Factoring in the Patriots’ subtractions, will it become an impossible one?