The Patriots play five prime-time games this season. The Denver Broncos, who vanquished the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last season, have six.
Anyone curious about why these teams are featured so prominently on the NFL’s partner networks this season presumably has been on hiatus from American civilization for the last dozen years or so.
One gets the sense the NFL might put these two teams on in prime time every Sunday (or Monday . . . or Thursday) if it could get away with it.
The appeal of the Patriots and Broncos begins with two names, two marquee quarterbacks whose careers have run parallel since 2001 and whose supporters can make a compelling claim that their guy not only is the best of his generation but any generation.
Oh, the Patriots-Broncos rivalry isn’t entirely about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. It just seems that way sometimes, and for wholly understandable reasons, says Bob Costas.
“With all due respect to everybody else, over more than a decade they are the two premier offensive players in the National Football League,’’ said Costas, the on-site host for NBC’s “Football Night in America” studio program. “Though others have ascended and are certainly superstars, these are the two players I think that the casual fan would most readily identify if you took consensus over the last 10, 12 years.
“People are fascinated by their individual matchups. They’re fascinated about at the end of the day what the consensus will be about who is the best quarterback of the generation — a number of Super Bowls won and appeared in factors into that. So you have all those things happening.”
The Brady-Manning debate/rivalry is one of the most enduring relevant topics in professional sports. They have faced each other 15 times. Brady and the Patriots have won 10 of those games, but Manning has bragging rights to the last victory, a 26-16 triumph in the AFC title game in January, a game that did not feel as close as the score might suggest.
Barring catastrophe, the new season will bring at least one more showdown, when the Broncos come to Foxborough Nov. 2. A postseason collision also may be in the cards, though projecting postseason matchups before the regular season has begun can be an effective way to look foolish in retrospect.
The truth is, given their ages (Brady turned 37 in August, Manning is 38) and the unforgiving violence of the sport they play, their final duel may come before we know it.
“They’re not in Derek Jeter territory yet,’’ said Costas, referencing the farewell-touring Yankees great, “but eventually it’s going to get to the point where people say, ‘Is this the last time we’ll see them? Is this the last season we’ll see them?’
“And they want to fix it in their mind’s eye because these guys are special. They’re first-ballot no-questions-about-it Hall of Famers. So we want to show the players and the teams people are most interested in. That’s what television is about. We want them on as often as we can.”
Ten Patriots games will air on AFC rights-holder CBS, including Sunday’s opener at Miami and a Thursday night game versus the Jets on Oct. 16 in Foxborough. But they will appear often enough on NBC by “Sunday Night Football” standards, with three scheduled games: vs. the Bengals (Oct. 5), Colts (Nov. 16), and Chargers (Dec. 7).
The Broncos also play three times on “Sunday Night Football,” in Weeks 1 (vs. Colts), 7 (vs. Niners), and 13 (vs. Chiefs). That means that NBC won’t go more than three weeks without featuring either the Patriots or Broncos.
It does not, however, have the game in which the Patriots and Broncos actually play each other. That Nov. 2 heavyweight bout in Foxborough should draw enormous ratings for CBS, which will broadcast it in the late afternoon window that begins at 4:25 p.m.
If all goes according to expectations in the eight weeks before that game, the matchup should begin to provide answers to one of the most compelling questions of the offseason: Which team did a better job of loading up its roster with a very specific opponent apparently in mind?
The Patriots signed premier cornerback Darrelle Revis to counter Manning and the Broncos’ record-shattering passing game. The Broncos plucked Aqib Talib, no slouch in pass coverage himself, from the Patriots, and also signed defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward.
Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy, analysts on NBC’s “Football Night in America” and rivals when Harrison played for the Patriots and Dungy coached the Colts, agreed that the Broncos and Patriots structured their rosters with the other in mind.
That strategy, Harrison said, is nothing new. He noted that players often play general manager among themselves in conversation, discussing colleagues around the league who could help their particular cause.
“As players, we’d sit back and talk in meeting rooms, we’d talk on the phone, and just casually say, ‘Hey, this guy would really help us out if we can get a nickel back to match up against, say, Brandon Stokley,’ ” Harrison said. “I think that’s what we root for, that the coach or GM will recognize what we need and go get it. Both of these teams did.”
Dungy warns that it can be counterproductive for a franchise to focus on one opponent above all others. But having coached during the first incarnation of the Brady-Manning rivalry, he understands why it happens.
“From a coaching standpoint, you know who your competition is, and sure, New England knows they’re going to have to beat Denver and vice versa,’’ Dungy said. “But it is a little dangerous just to focus on one team and structure everything to beat these guys. You want to make your team the best it can be.
“There might be a little bit of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to counteract the Patriots,’ or ‘we’ve got to counteract Denver,’ but I think it’s two very good organizations just trying to make their team as good as it can be.”
The Patriots and Broncos will meet once this season for sure. And if they are as good as they can be, chances are the postseason will provide a rematch. Not to mention one more chapter in the Brady-Manning rivalry, a book no NFL broadcast partner wants to see end.