You really can’t go wrong with either of these guys. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are two of the smartest and most well-prepared quarterbacks in history. Both have extraordinary presnap recognition skills (they’ve pretty much seen it all) and are master tacticians. They spot mismatches quickly and are exceptionally adept at calling audibles and putting their receivers in the best possible position to make plays. After the snap, they read through their progressions in a flash (they rarely lock on to a primary guy) and deliver accurate, catchable balls. Sure, they have their favorites (Messrs. Edelman and Welker) but both excel at getting everyone involved. Neither is very mobile and both are wise enough to take a sack if that’s the best option. It’s important to note that giving either of these guys any time on the clock (even a few seconds) after taking a late lead is a big mistake. They can never be counted out. Ever.
EDGE: New England
LeGarrette Blount is a load. The 6-foot, 250-pound weapon runs with a tailback’s nimbleness and a fullback’s ferocity. Blount is deceptively speedy to the hole and builds speeds quickly at the second and third levels; he has a legit breakaway gear. Blount has really good vision and patience. He runs with balance and power and dishes out as much punishment as he takes. Stevan Ridley is a shifty, energetic runner who bounces into openings and has some nice stutter-step and spin moves. Shane Vereen has good vision and runs with balance and surprising power. He could be the X factor Sunday. Denver’s Knowshon Moreno is enjoying his finest season. The 5-11, 210-pounder has a nifty blend of explosiveness and power. He has terrific vision and cut-back skills. He has the strength to wear down defenses and the speed to hit home runs. Rookie Montee Ball has excellent vision and a powerful leg drive.
EDGE: New England
Julian Edelman was supposed to pick up the slack up for Wes Welker this season, and it’s safe to say he has exceeded expectations. He is Tom Brady’s most trusted target because he’s smart, versatile, and tough. He’s also quick off the line, finds soft spots, and will lay out for every ball. Danny Amendola is more quick than fast, has strong hands, but has too often been a nonfactor this season. Rookie speedsters Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have shown flashes of brilliance but are maddeningly inconsistent. Austin Collie will make at least one big catch. Denver’s group is superb. Welker is Welker. Demaryius Thomas is big, fast, and strong. He has a huge receiving radius. Eric Decker has good size, speed, and power. He has strong hands and excellent concentration; he’ll hang on even after getting rocked. Tight end Julius Thomas is an excellent athlete with strong hands. A red zone beast.
New England’s big uglies (it’s a compliment) picked a great time to start playing their best football. This group has gone from pass protection to specialist to road graders. The interior three of center Ryan Wendell (he’s smart and sound) and guards Logan Mankins (he’s smart and surly) and Dan Connolly (he’s smart and strong) fire off the ball and hit till the whistle. Mankins is the gold standard. Tackles Nate Solder (he’s light on his feet) and Marcus Cannon (he’s versatile and athletic) are sometimes dominant and sometimes dominated. When they make mistakes, they’re glaring — and Tom Brady usually ends up on his fanny. Denver’s big blockers also are adept at protecting Peyton Manning and creating running lanes. Center Manny (being Manny) Ramirez is athletic, aggressive, and wide. Guards Louis Vasquez (he’s extraordinarily strong) and Zane Beadles (he’s quick) work hard. Tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin are solid.
New England’s front line continues to improve. Tackle Sealver Siliga works like a dog to stuff the run and penetrate the pocket. Rookie tackles Chris Jones (he can be disruptive in the backfield) and Joe Vellano (he can anchor) are enthusiastic. Ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are relentless. Ninkovich is smart and versatile and has a penchant for making big plays at big times. Jones uses explosiveness and power to get to the quarterback but doesn’t always take the quickest route and can get swallowed up by bigger blockers. Andre Carter can still bring it. Denver tackles Sylvester Williams (he’s deceptively quick) and Terrance Knighton (he’s pretty tough to move) will clog lanes and redirect runners. The ends are active. Wily veteran Shaun Phillips has a nice blend of explosiveness and power. The man can still get to the QB. Malik Jackson is big, quick, and instinctive. Ditto for Robert Ayers.
Jamie Collins has gone from nice rookie to indispensable force seemingly overnight. A superb athlete with excellent versatility and instincts, the 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pounder has the skills to defend the run, pressure the pocket, and drop into coverage. He could see a lot of Julius Thomas Sunday. Dont’a Hightower is a big man with good instincts. He knows where he’s supposed to be, but a lack of speed means he often arrives late. He possesses the power to make game-changing hits. Dane Fletcher is smart and tough but limited athletically. Danny Trevathan is the leader of the Denver defense. Trevathan (6-0, 237 pounds) makes up for his lack of size by being aggressive, physical, and relentless. He will make plays from sideline to sideline. Nate Irving shows a nice initial burst but can get manhandled. Wesley Woodyard (6-0, 222) is another undersized player but offsets that with tremendous athleticism and instincts.
New England is deep and talented here — but does any team ever have enough depth and talent to slow Peyton Manning? Aqib Talib is as close to a shutdown corner as the Patriots have had since Ty Law. Talib has good size and instincts. He can cover speedy receivers and big tight ends. Alfonzo Dennard has excellent mirror skills and anticipation. Kyle Arrington has been inconsistent and will give way to emerging rookie Logan Ryan at times. Safeties Devin McCourty (he’s smart and fearless) and Steve Gregory (he’s smart and willing) are everywhere. Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is an exceptional cover corner with great ball skills. Veteran corners Champ Bailey (durability is an issue) and Quentin Jammer (has lost a step) were once elite but now get by on guts and guile. Safeties Duke Ihenacho (he has good recognition skills) and Mike Adams (he’s physical) are solid but hardly spectacular.
EDGE: New England
LeGarrette Blount has been pulling double duty, returning kickoffs in addition to his running back chores. He started slow, but has certainly improved. If he spots — and hits — a seam, he will flash his deceptive speed. Julian Edelman (speaking of double duty) is a great punt returner. He has sure hands, excellent change-of-pace skills, and will burst through tiny cracks. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is among the best in the business, and foul weather won’t bother him. Rookie punter Ryan Allen has been solid all season but was injured last week and had to leave the game. Denver’s Trindon Holliday — all 5 feet 5 inches and 159 pounds of him — is among the league’s best (and most exciting) returners. He averaged 27.7 yards on kickoffs and 8.5 on punts. He brought one of each back for a TD. Kicker Matt Prater is the best in the business: He was 25 of 26 on FGs, including an NFL-record 64-yarder. Punter Britton Colquitt averaged 44.5 yards. Yes, it’s good to be a kicker in Denver.
Broncos WR Wes Welker vs. Patriots CBs Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan
Welker needs no introduction in these parts — or anywhere else. The best slot receiver in the business has very quick feet and strong hands. He lacks size (5 feet 9 inches, 185 pounds) and strength, but he still manages to get a clean break (how?) on most snaps. He runs great routes and has a knack for finding soft spots — and finding them quickly. The Patriots would do well to drill him within the legal 5 yards and disrupt his route-running and timing. He is an invaluable safety valve for Peyton Manning (just ask Tom) and the first guy in the pecking order on third down. He has been remarkably durable during his career but has missed time with multiple concussions this season. Looks a little like the Great Gazoo in that new helmet. Arrington has spent half this season blanketing slot receivers and the other half getting torched by slot receivers. If the good Arrington reports for duty on Sunday (and really, who knows Welker’s nuances better than New England’s defensive backs?), it will go a long way toward containing the uncontainable Welker. If the bad Arrington shows up, rookie Ryan will step in. Ryan is a bigger, more physical defender who has good instincts. The only thing he’s lacking is experience.
Patriots LG Logan Mankins vs. Broncos OLBs Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard
Mankins is everything you want in an offensive lineman. He’s big (6 feet 4 inches, 310 pounds), surprisingly athletic, deceptively quick, and ruthless. Among the toughest hombres in the NFL (Bill Belichick says so, so that should be good enough for anyone), Mankins fires out of his stance and delivers a stunning blow. After neutralizing his initial block, Mankins goes hunting for linebackers and is adept at picking them off and smothering them. If this mauler gets his meaty mitts on you, you’re done. He’s adept at pulling and trapping and never takes a play off. If you don’t play till the whistle, Mankins will give you a reminder that it would be wise to do so. Trevathan and Woodyard lack size (comparatively speaking) but are relentless, sideline-to-sideline playmakers. Trevathan is tough and aggressive. He is quick to find the ball and uses sneaky-fast speed to slip blocks and punish ball carriers. Woodyard has good presnap recognition and gives maximum effort on every play. He is relentless in pursuit and, despite lacking prototypical strength, will work hard to shed blocks. Woodyard closes fast and explodes into ball carriers.
BRONCOS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Orange County Choppers: The Patriots have been gashing opponents on the ground. The manhandlers up front, Sylvester Williams and Terrance Knighton, have to close the lanes and cut down the runners in the backfield.
2. Orange Julius: Tight end Julius Thomas is an excellent athlete (another former college hoop star) who has developed quickly. Get him the ball, because he’s a nightmare matchup. Also, at 6 feet 5 inches, he dominates in the red zone.
3. Orange Crush: Veteran Shaun Phillips is good at a lot of things. But he’s great at getting to the quarterback. The speedy end/linebacker hybrid has to explode off the edge and make Tom Brady uncomfortable from the get-go.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Clockwork orange: Stay with what’s working. Feed LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley and let them grind the clock and grind down the defense. Keep the seconds ticking and keep Peyton Manning stewing on the sideline.
2. Orange whip: It’s awfully tough to sack Peyton Manning because of his quick release. But Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich must create some semblance of pressure and prevent Manning from sitting pretty in the pocket.
3. Orange line: Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has been an unsung hero this year. He has acted as an honorary offensive lineman and blocked his caboose off all season. He needs to continue that today — and maybe catch a pass or two.
Patriots 30, Broncos 27