NBC hit the ratings jackpot for Sunday Night Football as America will indeed be waiting all day for the matchup between the Patriots (7-3) and the Broncos (9-1) at Gillette Stadium. It's the latest installment of arguably the greatest individual rivalry in modern sports between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. It's Brady vs. Manning XIV, only it's not live on pay-per-view for some obscene price but will be available for free on broadcast TV. Bill Belichick's team looks to avoid a losing streak coming off the short week and the Monday night loss in Carolina. Interim Denver coach Jack Del Rio's squad is looking to take another step toward the potential No. 1 seed in the AFC. As is so often the case when Brady and Manning-led teams meet this late in the season, this one will have postseason ramifications and might decide where a potential playoff rematch will be played. Oh, and in case you didn't hear about it, Sunday night will bring the return of Wes Welker to New England, a place where he only caught 600-plus passes from Brady to help build one of the more dominant offenses in the NFL in recent years. Now, he's doing the same for the Broncos. The matchups are endless. The storylines are plentiful. And Mother Nature may even add bit of visual flair with some winter weather. Put it all together and Sunday night might just bring the best game the NFL has to offer this season. You'll have to wait a little longer until the primetime kickoff, but until then sit back and prepare for history in the making with this Rocky Mountain inspired but Boston brewed 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.
- Secondary concerns primary** – Four of the top five defensive backs for the Patriots are listed as questionable on the injury report. All were on the field for practice this week, but it would have to be unlikely that all will be on the turf inside Gillette Stadium Sunday night. Top corner Aqib Talib continues to battle the hip injury that sidelined him for a month and then forced him back to the bench late in his return to action in Carolina. Talib wasn't his early-season dominant self against Steve Smith and the Panthers. In theory the bigger bodied Demaryius Thomas might be a better physical matchup in this game against the Broncos, but that's only if Talib's hip is healthy enough to allow him to play his A game. Alfonzo Dennard reportedly had minor knee surgery last week and that would seem to make him unlikely to be in action against Denver. Steve Gregory (thumb) got back on the practice field this week with a cast. Getting him back in the middle would be a nice help, especially against Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who's dealing with a knee injury of his own. Kyle Arrington is the final banged up Patriots defensive back, as he continues to deal with a groin issue that's been bothering him off and on in game action for weeks. With the Broncos primarily a three-receiver team, the Patriots will likely need to field at least five defensive backs against Denver. As it looks at this point, that could include Talib trying to body up with Thomas, Arrington battling Welker in the slot and healthy rookie Logan Ryan looking to deal with Eric Decker. But given all the health issues, guys like rookie safety Duron Harmon and reserve corner Marquise Cole will be very much on-call. It also wouldn't be out of the question to see Devin McCourty take some reps at cornerback against the seemingly endless weapons that Manning has at his disposal. All hands will be on deck, and even that may not be competitive enough against a team that sports three guys with nine or more touchdown catches and five guys with 37-plus catches. That would be a major challenge on any day, but will be even more so on Sunday for a very much banged up defensive backfield.
- Return to turnovers** – The Patriots failed to force a turnover in the loss in Carolina, snapping the team's 36-game streak. It was just the second game this season that New England lost the turnover battle. Getting back on the positive side of the turnover differential would be a huge positive step in the chances of beating the Broncos. For all its offensive domination and statistics, Denver has actually turned the ball over quite a bit this season. The team is minus-2 for the year, tied for 18th in the NFL. That comes in large part due to the fact that the Broncos have turned the ball over 19 times – more than all but five teams in the league -- including 13 fumbles. A lot of those fumbles are credited to Manning, even though some came on missed exchanges with his backs. Regardless, whether this game is a high-scoring shootout or a more reasonable score held in check by the weather the Patriots need to get back to their winning formula that includes winning the turnover battle. Other than points, it's the most important statistic in the NFL and magnified for a team like that Patriots that has seen seven of 10 games decided by a touchdown or less.
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.
- 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.
- Protect Brady, ball** – The Broncos defense ranks 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Some of that is obviously due to the fact that opponents trailed early and were forced the throw the ball often in the comeback attempt. The unit has been pretty good in making plays – both in terms of pressure and picking off passes. Denver has 29 sacks for the season, despite playing more than half the year without Von Miller. The Broncos have seven different guys with multiple sacks through 10 games, including a team-high nine from Shaun Phillips. The unit also has an impressive 13 interceptions, making it a top-10 group in picking off passes. But if the Patriots can protect Brady and he makes his usual good decisions, there is clearly room to make plays against a suspect back end. One of the major issues in protection will be right tackle Marcus Cannon, who must deal with Miller on many plays coming off the Broncos defensive left side. Brady has always had success against Jack Del Rio defenses. While Belichick said Del Rio's unit in Denver is different than what he fielded in his days in Jacksonville, it's hard to get Brady's dominant passing performances against the Jaguars out of my mind. Give Brady the time, and assuming the wind isn't debilitating, he'll find plenty of plays through the air. Denver is middle of the pack on third down and even worse in the red zone. Let the shootout begin!
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.