Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium will mark the 16th time that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have faced one another in the NFL – regular season and playoffs included. Almost without exception, those games have all been close, entertaining affairs filled with drama.
Brady has gotten the better of his slightly older rival 10 of the previous 15 times, but the 38-year-old Manning might be playing the best football of his illustrious career.
"Peyton has been a phenomenal player – so consistent and durable for a long period of time. We've had a great rivalry… and this year is no different. I'd say it's a great matchup. "He's always been someone I've really looked up to and studied and admired. I mean, he is older than me and has more playing experience than me," the 37-year-old Brady quipped. "Maybe when I'm his age, I'll be playing as well as that."
"They're like wine, you know. They're just getting better with age," DE Rob Ninkovich observed of Brady and Manning. "Those guys both – you know, Tom, [I've been] practicing against him forever, he's so competitive. Two great quarterbacks, and I'm excited to be able to play in this game."
"It's special playing at home, with the crowd noise, it's going to be a great game," remarked tight end Rob Gronkowski. "The Denver Broncos are a very, very, very good team – one of the best in the league, if not the best right now. So, we're very excited for the game. Just have to keep on practicing hard this week."
Crowd noise, as Gronkowski noted, could be a factor for the Patriots impacting Manning and the Bronco offense. Manning is known for his often exaggerated checks and audibles and other pre-snap histrionics, including hard counts and staggered cadences.
"He's a tremendous football player. He knows so much. He's seen it all. You can't fool the guy," added Ninkovich. "One of the best ever. He's in total control. It's exciting to play him."
So, how can New England game plan against that?
"It's going to be on us to expect those kinds of things and be disciplined," linebacker Akeem Ayers pointed out. "You get into the flow of the game and how he's calling his hard counts. Most of it comes when we're actually out there on the field. It's definitely to our advantage that he may not be able to make some calls he would usually make if he was at home."
"It's not just one area in these games," Ninkovich continued. "Everyone's got to play well. It's a team game. All three phases have to play tough. [Denver's] a very talented team. That's always my motto: empty the tank out. At the end of this one, I'm sure I'll be on E."
Branch signing finally official
New England welcomed defensive tackle Alan Branch at long last Wednesday, more than a week after he was first reported to have signed with the club. To make room for him on the 53-man roster, the Patriots released rookie linebacker Deontae Skinner, who had started a handful of games already this season.
Branch was wearing jersey number 97 at Wednesday's practice. Ayers, meanwhile, was sporting Skinner's old 55, while another newcomer – linebacker Jonathan Casillas – took Ayers' previous number 52. Ayers said Casillas asked to wear 52 and he was happy to oblige.
"It really didn't matter to me," Ayers smiled. "The number  was available, so, I just let him get ."
Offensive lineman Chris Barker was released to accommodate Casillas on the active roster.
Ward-ing him off
When Gronkowski last saw Broncos safety T.J. Ward on a football field, Ward was a Cleveland Brown diving at Gronk's legs in a game at Gillette Stadium last December. The play resulted in a blown-out right knee for Gronkowski, from which he is just now seemingly fully recovered.
Asked if he harbors any hard feelings toward Ward, Gronkowski avoided the question.
"Just going out there and playing like I do every day. Trying to make some plays, doing my job out on the field to the max of my ability," the tight end replied.
DE Chandler Jones (hip) was the only Patriot not on the field for Wednesday's workout. The Boston Herald reported this past Sunday that Jones could be out at least six weeks and possibly much longer – perhaps the remainder of the season.