Welcome to Season 2, Episode 19 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. The second-seeded Patriots, coming off a 43-22 victory over Andrew Luck and the Colts, travel to Denver to take on
Norris Weese Tim Tebow Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Broncos. You know the stakes -- a trip to the Super Bowl as well as some individual legacies. Here's hoping the game proves worthy of the anticipation. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY AND PEYTON MANNING I'LL BE WATCHING:
1. Danny Amendola: I think he's the sleeper here, one of the keys to Patriots victory who is a bit of an afterthought as we head toward 3 p.m. Sunday. The Patriots will have their chances to hit big plays against the aging and depleted Broncos defensive backfield. But do they have a receiver, other than Julian Edelman in the slot, who is capable of making those plays. I suppose it could be Aaron Dobson, who looks like he'll be a go after missing the Colts game with a recurrence of a foot injury. But there's a real opportunity here for Amendola, who had three catches for 77 yards in the divisional round, to steal the spotlight away from all of the Broncos' various weapons, including a certain receiver Amendola replaced in New England. He's played admirably this season given the gruesome injury he suffered in Week 1, but he hasn't always played consistently. The Patriots need him to be who they thought they were getting.
2. Knowshon Moreno: The weather forecast -- 60 degrees and no wind -- would seem to encourage the Broncos to put the ball in the air. And they will, with the Thomases standing out as particularly inviting targets for Manning. But it would be foolish to completely dismiss Moreno, who racked up 224 yards on 37 carries in the Week 12 matchup, as a factor. Sealver Siliga has provided sturdiness to the Patriots' run defense, but their overall effectiveness as a run-stopping unit is still somewhat of a mystery.
3. Chandler Jones: It's pretty simple: The Patriots need to be in Manning's face relentlessly even if they don't collect the sacks. Make him feel the heat and throw the ball a split-second sooner than he wants to. Give Aqib Talib, Logan Ryan or Alfonzo Dennard a chance to make a play. More to the point, give Manning a chance to swallow his own tongue. Ideally, the rush would come from up the middle, but that's a strength of Denver's line, and depending on undrafted rookie Chris Jones as a chief pass-rusher isn't the best plan. The best plan? The Patriots need Chandler Jones, who has just one sack in the past six weeks, to find his early-season form and put some heat on Manning.
A QUICK LINK TO A BRILLIANT STORY ABOUT A FORMER BRONCOS QUARTERBACK WITH HIS PRIORITIES IN ORDER
Save for maybe the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs, I always enjoyed watching Jake Plummer play since he did this in the '97 Rose Bowl:
But I liked him more after this February 2011 profile by the excellent Chris Ballard on Plummer's the-dude-abides life after football. One of the best features I've ever read in SI, actually.
HOW MUCH DO YOU TRUST JOSH MCDANIELS?
Wes Welker isn't the only prominent personality in this game who has revenge -- or at least vindication -- as a motive. McDaniels, who went 11-17 as the Broncos' coach in 2009 and '10 (he was fired with four games remaining, having lost 7 of the last 8 games), is regarded by Broncos fans as an inept Belichick wannabe who set the franchise back for years. (Ignore that Demaryius Thomas was among those drafted on his watch.) I can't think of a coach in Patriots history who engenders such venom here as McDaniels does in Denver.
So in that sense, his status as the Patriots offensive coordinator must make the less-nuanced Broncos fans irrationally confident. He messed things up here, he'll mess 'em up for the Patriots, too, even with Brady and Belichick on his side. HE OWES US THIS MUCH! HE TRADED OUR BELOVED CUTLER!
While I suspect that McDaniels is held in considerably higher regard around the league than he is in Denver -- I'm convinced he's still here rather than interviewing in Cleveland or elsewhere because he's fairly certain he's Belichick's hand-picked successor -- there's no denying he has something to prove Sunday, or at least has something he'd like to prove.
But getting the most out of this offense is a more complicated puzzle that usual for this reason: The Patriots' apparent strength at the moment -- handing the ball to LeGarrette Blount and watching him and the left side of the offensive line pound the defense into submission -- actually plays into a Denver strength. With 335-pound Terrance Knighton anchoring the line, the Broncos had the seventh-best run defense in the league this season.
And conversely, even with Brady at the helm, it's uncertain whether the Patriots have enough weapons in the passing game to take advantage of Denver's weakness. The loss of Chris Harris against the Chargers was a crucial blow, and while Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer were wonderful in 2006, their best days are long past. They're ripe to be picked apart by Brady, but does he have the receivers capable of exploiting them. Again, Amendola needs to come through.
It falls on McDaniels to be creative without being overly cute, to stick with the run to some degree even if it falters in the early going, and to find that delicate balance that keeps the Broncos defense on its heels. It's a lot to ask. But with a trip to the Super Bowl -- and personal vindication -- as the reward, McDaniels must be doing everything in his power to make sure this is the best offensive gameplan he's ever put together.
WES WELKER IS A SHELL OF HIS FORMER SELF
I hesitate to say that, because he was an incredibly effective and admirable player here for six years, and I fear his essential contributions to some great Patriots teams has been fogged over by the two drops. (I assume they require no further explanation.) There's also a reasonable chance that he rises to the occasion Sunday, if for no other reason than he's essentially Denver's fourth option. But man, he's clearly not anything close to the player he was in his prime. Perhaps its the after-effects of his most recent concussion, or perhaps his skills have simply begun to naturally erode since he's on the wrong side of 30. If it's not apparent now -- even if it's not apparent Sunday -- it will be soon: The Patriots made the right decision in letting him go.
PREDICTION, OR WHERE'S BILLY CUNDIFF WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
The Broncos have every advantage this week but one, or maybe one-and-a-half, since Brady-Manning is more or less a draw. Bill Belichick gives you more than a fighting chance no matter whether the opponent is the '89 Niners, the '78 Steelers, the '93 Cowboys, whoever. He's the best coach in the history of the NFL. But the deck is stacked against his team this week. Denver has home field, favorable weather, superior offensive weapons, and a defense whose flaws will be difficult for the Patriots to expose. This Patriots team, resilient in the face of almost unfathomable attrition, deserves your faith, and I damn near picked them to win this game. Hell, I still have this nagging hunch that Stephen Gostkowski might have a Vinatieri moment. But given that so many of the matchup checkmarks belong to Denver, they simply have to be the logical pick to win. Here's to me being wrong one more time this season.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Patriots 31, overtime.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.