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Mon., Apr. 27, 2015 12:00 AM to 11:59 PM EDT
Tue., Apr. 28, 2015 12:00 AM to 11:55 AM EDT
Tue., Apr. 28, 2015 11:55 AM to 2:00 PM EDT
Friday Six-Pack: Broncos Edition
1. Manning the front – Though some have questioned his arm strength and wobbly passes through a month of football, I think Manning's first four games in Denver are borderline amazing. For a guy who missed an entire season with a major neck injury to change teams in the offseason and hit the ground running the way Manning has despite a tough opening-month schedule is pretty impressive in my eyes. Despite all that and having a really bad quarter in Atlanta, Manning had the 10th best passer rating after four weeks. He seems to be getting more comfortable with the guys around him, and that's a key part of the process as he tries to elevate Denver to the NFL's elite. The one major difference – and thing that makes him more susceptible right now – is that Manning is being pressured and hit a bit more than he ever was with the Colts. He's been sacked eight times and hit and pressured much more than that. He's going to have a new center in this one as Dan Koppen slides into the lineup. There should be chances for the Patriots developing pass rush to get after Manning a bit. Ryan Clady is a very good left tackle, so Rookie of the Month Chandler Jones has his work cut out for him. But I liked what I saw in terms of Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia moving the pass rushers around a bit in Buffalo. I also like the interior matchup with either Vince Wilfork or Kyle Love going against Koppen. Manning is already making plays for the Broncos and certainly has lifted the once Tim Tebow-led passing attack out of the dark ages in Denver. But if the Patriots can pressure him, that will go a long way toward keeping his scoring down leading an offense that ranks No. 7 in the league in points per game.
2. Talkin' ‘bout Willis – As much as Manning is the story in Denver and clearly the leader of the offense, Willis McGahee is off to a very good start for the team's rushing attack. The veteran ranks seventh in the AFC with 325 yards and an impressive 4.7 yards a carry. The only game he really struggled was against the Texans top-ranked defense. The Patriots run defense has been inconsistent this season, but is clearly the strength of the front. Brandon Spikes and company have been making opposing ball carriers pay. That needs to continue as the Broncos will try to stay somewhat balanced. It was obviously a completely different offense, but Denver did run all over the Patriots in the early going during last year's regular season meeting. McGahee has had his days against the Patriots over the years, but this should be a battle that Wilfork, Jerod Mayo will be able to win in this one. That's especially true given Wilfork's advantages over Koppen, as the former Pro Bowl center has struggled at times over the years with elite tackles with the combination of size and athleticism that Wilfork possesses.
3. Run – While the defense has been stopping the run, the Patriots offense has obviously been moving the ball on the ground. In fact the team's winning formula in its two victories involved getting the running game going in Tennessee and Buffalo. Denver comes in with the No. 9 rush defense in the NFL and has only allowed the opposition to go for 3.4 a carry through four games. That included holding Atlanta's Michael Turner to just 2.5 a carry. New England's Stevan Ridley has been running well all year, and Brandon Bolden broke out last weekend in Buffalo. New England's offensive line has to get the credit for much of the success in Buffalo against what is supposed to be a talented front. Obviously the key will be how Denver chooses to play the Patriots. If they go to sub schemes, as Buffalo did, New England will run. If they stay in base, that will lead to more passing and spreading out that base defense. Somewhat regardless, I'm a fan of keeping the running game involved. The Patriots ran for more than 140 yards against the Broncos in both meetings a year ago. Keep that ground production going in this series.
4. Middle D – Manning seems more comfortable with his inside and possession receivers early in his time in Denver. Denver's top-10 passing attack is led by Eric Decker's 24 receptions for 322 yards and a score. Jacob Tamme has 15 catches and a touchdown, while Brandon Stokley has another 13 receptions and a score. Though Demaryius Thomas has 21 catches and a pair of scores, Manning has always liked to make plays in the middle of the field with his possession and slot targets. That got him in trouble early in Atlanta in terms of interceptions. But middle of the field coverage has always been a problem for the Patriots in recent years and the safety position has been a little more unsettled of late. Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower need to be better in their pass drops. The safeties need to be better. New England's pass defense leaves much to be desired at this point, and that includes a middle of the field that Manning will likely target.
I've been saying all week that I'm starting to go into games with the 2012 Patriots the way I did with the 2011 squad. That's expecting the offense to score somewhere in the 30-point range and the defense to allow upwards of 20 points. The one thing that is a good addition to this year's formula is the ability of the defense e to make plays and force turnovers. I have plenty of faith that Brady will get the protection he needs to make plays through the air, though the health of his tight ends is a concern. I'm not ready to say that Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch are ready to carry the passing attack if Gronk were not able to play. That said, I expect the Patriots to be able to play a balanced style on offense and really take whatever Denver's good-but-not-great defense is giving up. Defensively from the Patriots perspective, I don't think Manning the and Broncos passing attack is ready to get into a shootout with Brady and Co. Put it all together and I see something in the range of a 35-24 Patriots victory, although the weather could always keep the score down from that total. Overall I just think New England is the better team that's been together longer, while Manning is still trying to pull it all together in Denver. So it won't be a cakewalk for Belichick's troops, but will be a solid early season home victory to follow up the disappointing home opener against Arizona.