While the Broncos (6-1) have been considered one of the top teams in the AFC for more than a year, including Denver's trip to last February's Super Bowl, it's taken a four-game Patriots (6-2) winning streak to propel Bill Belichick's team into the conversation for best in the conference. But midway through 2014, here we are again with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning leading their respective teams into battle with playoff positioning and bragging rights on the line. It's been a nearly annual occurrence for more than a decade to see No. 12 and No. 18 (with either a horseshoe or horse head on his helmet) fighting for supremacy in the conference. And more often than not the matchups live up to the pregame hype and give football fans more than their money's worth in three-plus hours of entertainment. If Denver wins the Broncos will cement themselves as the team to beat and favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. If New England can pull off the home upset it would be a big step toward another postseason run as the Patriots try to navigate a hellacious five-game stretch of top competition. It's Brady vs. Manning. Belichick vs. Manning. Patriots vs. Broncos. It's easily the game of the week in the NFL. As you try to contain your pregame excitement until late Sunday afternoon calm your nerves with this Rocky Mountain-brewed, New England-served, Brady vs. Manning XVI Broncos at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Weather or not** – Belichick spent a big chunk of his Friday press conference in the media workroom at Gillette Stadium explaining why he doesn't worry about weather reports and how they've failed him so often in recent and distant memory. That's all fine and dandy, but weather will play a factor in this game. Manning has never been a great bad-weather quarterback. Brady is one of the best ever in adverse conditions. The gap in that comparison has only grown with Manning's more limited arm strength since undergoing multiple neck surgeries. One thing is for sure, it's going to be chilly. It's also unlikely that there will be enough precipitation of any kind to affect the game. The real wild card is the wind. If it's blowing anywhere near like it did in last year's regular season game between the two teams in Foxborough it will be a clear issue for Manning and the Denver high-powered passing attack. Neither team is all that well suited to run the ball these days due to injury, certainly nothing like the 280 yards the Broncos had on the ground led by Knowshon Moreno last season. The bottom line is that the worse the weather is -- wind or precipitation – the better it should be for the Patriots in terms of limiting Manning, his aerial attack and the road favorite. Belichick may not trust the forecast or game plan based on the weather, but the potential 30 mph winds would be a boon for his team.
- Matching up** – Some of the biggest decisions and question marks in this game will revolve around who the defenses choose to match up against the opposing offense's top weapons. On paper this a battle between the NFL's No. 2 pass defense from New England and the Broncos No. 3 passing attack. There is little question that the Denver side has the star power in that matchup. Manning's targets include elite wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and budding superstar tight end Julius Thomas, as well as proven playmakers Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker. Many have pondered this week how the Patriots – led by veteran cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner – would literally match up with the Broncos targets. Was Browner signed this spring specifically for this battle, to man up with Julius Thomas? Revis to take out Demaryius Thomas? In that case, who's left to deal with Sanders, who's proven himself a tremendous addition in his short time in Manning's arsenal? Denver has its own issues trying to deal with Rob Gronkowski. In the end, this may be another week where zone coverage and plenty of extra bodies in the back end is the plan of attack for Matt Patricia's defense. It would also be a good idea to see the Patriots be physical near the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the routes Manning's many weapons are running. But watching how New England chooses to defend Denver's diverse aerial attack (with or without the help of some wind!) will be a focal point in this big time battle.
3. Playing takeaway – One of the many, many positive things these two teams have in common is the ability to take care of the football. New England has given the ball away just five times this season. Denver just four times. There is a much greater divide, though, in terms of takeaways. The Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential thanks in part to 16 takeaways, third-best in the league at this point. Denver has half as many forced turnovers. It's stating the obvious to say that turnovers are key. But they are. If the teams live up to their statistical resumes, it would be a huge lift for the home team to double up the Broncos in takeaways. But that's easier stated than executed. Manning has just three interceptions so far. Denver has lost just one of its eight fumbles on the season, but half of New England's takeaways, 8, have come on fumbles. Turnovers were a key part of the momentum swings in last year's regular season battle between these clubs. If the game is played cleanly, it's an advantage for the visitors. But the Patriots have done an impressive job this year of making sure opponents can't play a clean game. They'll certainly need to do that again in this one to get things rolling in the winning direction.
- Go green in red** – Another key category where these two teams differ a bit is in red zone offense. While each team is middle-of-the-pack in red zone defense – New England ranked 16, Denver 17 – they are much farther apart on the offensive side of this always-key statistic. The Broncos have NFL's No. 1 red zone offense, having scored 19 touchdowns in 23 trips, as well as a 100-percent scoring rate. New England hasn't been nearly so efficient inside the 20, ranking 18th in the league thanks to 17 touchdowns in 31 trips. It's preached so many times – especially in this analytical neighborhood – but good old football math says that 7 beats 3 every time. These two offenses are good enough that they are expected to move the ball with pretty impressive regularity. But the team that most takes advantage of its red zone chances, and avoids kicking too many field goals, will probably come out on top.
- Beast of the east** – Denver brings plenty of matchup problems on offense. But there is no bigger matchup problem in football than Gronkowski. As Brady said, Gronk is in beast mode these days. He's running well, catching well and using his massive size to make defenders pay for coming near him. The Patriots offense is hitting its stride as Gronkowski hits his. He took part in the regular season meeting between these teams last fall and the Patriots won. He missed the postseason and New England lost. It is what it is. He's arguably the most irreplaceable player in the game today. And the weakness of the Broncos defense is in the middle of the field. The game also pits Gronkowski against the man who took out the tight end's knee last December – T.J. Ward. There has been talk that Denver might use Aqib Talib to match up with Gronkowski. That might be a fun battle to watch. It's unlikely that Talib would be able to bully around and blanket Gronk the way he did with the far-less-physical Jimmy Graham when the cornerback was with the Patriots last season. More likely Denver might try to use a combination of Ward and a linebacker, maybe Brandon Marshall, took deal with big No. 87. Gronkowski could also be valuable in this game simply by being the focal point of the Broncos pass defense. That will, as always, open up opportunities for other Patriots pass catchers. Brandon LaFell has come on. Tim Wright might be worthy of some contributions earlier in games. Even Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen could take advantage of all the attention Gronkowski may get in the middle of the field. Either Gronkowski will make a ton of plays and key the red zone for New England or he'll open things up for others through the air. Either way, Gronk is and always will be the key to the New England passing attack.
- Hall pass** – They never step on the field together, but Brady vs. Manning is arguably the greatest individual rivalry in sports history. The two ageless wonders are putting up big numbers once again as two of the best quarterbacks in the game. Manning has been cruising for most of the year. Brady has picked up the pace in the last month. Manning's three meetings with the Patriots as a member of the Broncos have included seven touchdowns and one interception. So it's not exactly true to say he's wilted in the face of facing Brady and Belichick in recent tries. Of course Brady has five touchdowns and no interceptions in those same games. In fact Brady has just one interception and 10 touchdowns in his last five meetings with Manning-led teams. So it would be a somewhat stunning development if either future Hall of Fame passer fell flat in this one and laid an egg. More likely is that both put up impressive numbers and lead impressive passing attacks, unless of course the wind cuts into that plan. There are only so many of these games between two of the greatest passers in NFL history left. While many assume that these teams will meet again in January, there's obviously no certainty of that. Brady and Manning are a joy to watch. Brady and Manning will likely be the story of this one, on some level, as they have been for the previous 15 meetings. It's a great idea to pressure Manning. But it doesn't happen. It's a great idea to confuse him. But that rarely happens. The Broncos will try to get to Brady through an improving offensive line using the elite pass-rush duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Brady and Manning are at the center of it all, just as they are generally at the center of so many NFL conversations. The aging greats remain great – both on the field and in terms of game-day storylines.
Brady enters his 200th NFL start riding a four-game winning streak and a 13-game winning streak at Gillette Stadium. His offense is finally clicking. Manning and his offense are also clicking, but they have to deal with the road environment that they've faced just twice this season, including their only loss of the year at Seattle. Weather should favor New England in some way. On paper the Broncos are better on both sides of the ball and probably have the more diverse roster of playmaking talents on both sides of the ball. But the Patriots triumvirate of stars – Brady, Gronkowski and Revis – is rounding into Pro Bowl form at the right time. Those three will likely key any success New England has in this one. Offensively I expect Josh McDaniels to try to spread the Broncos out and utilize a quick, efficient passing game to move the ball early. That means Edelman and Vereen could be key targets, along with Gronkowski and LaFell. The best way to deal with Denver's impressive pass rush is to get rid of the ball quickly. On the flip side, New England probably has little chance of getting to Manning, so I expect Patricia to play a lot of sub looks and flood the back end. That will probably lead Manning to run the ball a decent amount of the time. I just don't see him succeeding that way like the Broncos did last year. New England's undermanned front will need to tackle but I don't see Denver winning this game on the ground with the likes of Ronnie Hillman or others. It's very simple, from this perspective, if the Patriots back end can disrupt, frustrate and slow down the Broncos aerial attack enough, then the home team can pull the upset. I think that will happen. Look for No. 12, No. 87 and No. 24 to all make key plays. Look for some wind to get Manning off his game some. Look for that to also keep the scoring down just a bit. In the end look forNew England to pull off the 28-24 victory to claim its spot as the best team in the AFC early in November. I certainly can talk my myself into either team potentially winning this game, but in the end I'm going to go with the home team and the lineup of Brady, Belichick, Gronkowski and Revis over the likes of Manning, John Fox, the Thomases and Talib. Just feels like the right bet.