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Thu., Apr. 02, 2015 12:00 AM to 11:55 AM EDT
Thu., Apr. 02, 2015 11:55 AM to 2:00 PM EDT
Thu., Apr. 02, 2015 2:00 PM to 11:59 PM EDT
Broncos at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack
1. Weather or not – Make no mistake, it's going to be cold on Sunday night. Temperatures will drop throughout the day into the low 20s and maybe even lower than that. But the biggest issue would be the wind. Reports at this point have indicated that winds could be in the 20 mph range. Anything much more than that could really become a factor for the passing attacks for both teams. Manning has never thrown the tightest spiral. He's lost something on his arm since the neck injury. It's even worse of late as he deals with an ankle injury on his back, power leg. He's also struggled with weather conditions in the past, especially when the white stuff starts falling. Even just a few flakes combined with high winds and the cold might be enough to get in Manning's head and derail a Broncos attack that's trying to break some of the records the Patriots set back in 2007. Of course the Patriots will be looking to throw the ball a bit as well, so wind would be an issue for Brady and his rejuvenated group of receivers. Still, Brady has proven himself a good bad-weather quarterback over the years. Weather might suck some of the scoring and excitement out of his marquee matchup, but it also might be a slight advantage to the home squad. It always adds another layer to a big game when you have to add the Weather Channel to your pregame routine.
4. Spread and shoot – One of the great decisions a coaching staff must make when facing a Manning-led offense is how to approach its own offensive game plan. Do you go all in and try to keep up with Manning on the scoreboard, engaging in a shootout? Or, do you try to play keep-away and slow things down on your own offense in an effort to limit Manning's chances and keep him on the sideline? As I said earlier, the weather may play into this decision. But, I still think the Patriots offense is back to the point where going after the Broncos and preparing to score as many points as possible is the way to do it in this matchup. The New England attack just isn't built with the idea of trying to slow things down. For the better part of a decade it's been about spreading teams out, throwing the ball and putting points on the board as often as possible. With Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen healthy the Patriots present matchup problems for every defense they face moving forward. Brady can dictate the tempo of the game. While this may not be quite the “turbo” offense we saw a year ago against Denver, I don't think an overly conservative approach is warranted against a suspect Broncos defense. The revitalized Patriots should do what they do, meaning look to score on every snap. That will be put pressure on Manning – and his suspect ankle – to do the same.
5. Jones in the spotlight – Manning is dealing with an ankle injury and getting rid of the ball quickly. The Broncos offensive game plan a week ago was to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible and keep the Kansas City pass rush at bay. It worked perfectly. The statistics prove in 2013, once again, that blitzing Manning is a losing proposition. But that doesn't mean you can just let him sit back and pick apart a banged up, potentially reserve-filled Patriots secondary. That means Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Chris Jones will be expected to at least make Manning think twice about standing pat. Chandler Jones has a team-high 9.5 sacks. He's had a very nice second season. But he's not really been a dominant force on the edge. Sunday night's game could be an opportunity for a breakout game for all the world to see, including his humorous post-sack dances. He's facing Denver backup left tackle Chris Clark. Aside from last week, protecting Manning has been an issue at times. He's functionally limited with the ankle issue. This marks a chance for Chandler Jones to establish himself as one of the elite young pass rushers in the game. Doing so would be a huge boost for a Patriots defense that will be looking for something to give it an edge. Pressure off the edge might just be the difference, although getting to Manning is and always has been easier said than done.
A few weeks ago I didn't see the Patriots having much of a chance in the potentially high-scoring matchup with the Broncos. But the last two games with a healthy New England offense have convinced me otherwise. The Brady-led passing attack is back. Weather limitations aside, I'd be stunned if the Patriots didn't score 30-plus points against Denver. The problem, of course, is that the Broncos will be in the 30s as well. All signs point to the numbers on the scoreboard being higher than those on the thermometer. The issues in the New England defensive backfield simply can't be overlooked. Guys will be missing and playing at less than 100-percent. Put it all together and I think this one comes down to turnovers and Manning's mistakes (and maybe a Trindon Holliday big return!?). If he can play a pretty clean game and the Broncos keep the turnover battle relatively even then I think Denver brings too much to the table for the Patriots to deal with. So, I'm envisioning something in the range of a 38-35 win for the Broncos. It's another back-and-forth battle in the rivalry between these two Hall of Fame passers, another installment in the NFL Films special we'll all be watching a decade from now. And while it could leave the Patriots with a two-game losing streak, in my mind it does little to shake my re-configured thoughts on New England's chances of making a postseason run. The offense is back. The defense will have to hold on. That's the story of this game and the last month of the season.