After a controversial finish to their 24-20 loss to the Panthers, the Patriots have had a short week to prepare for the most touted game of the regular season: their Week 12 contest with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are 9-1 and have taken over command in the AFC with their win over the Kansas City Chiefs. With temperatures expected to be below freezing on Sunday night, the Patriots hope to chill Manning’s offense on their way to a win. Here are some of the key matchups to watch heading into this showdown that will undoubtedly have major implications in the AFC playoff race.
Tom Brady vs. Broncos secondary
Coming off of a tough loss to the Panthers, Tom Brady showed that he can still lead the team down the field quickly and put the Patriots in a position to score points. The Patriots had just seven offensive series against Carolina, but after punting on the first series, Brady led the team into Carolina territory every chance he had, with the offense coming away with points on all but two of those (the fumble by Stevan Ridley on the second drive and the controversial end zone interception on the final drive.) Brady has thrown for 2,552 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games. The last time the Patriots and Broncos met – Week 5 of the 2012 season – Brady threw for 223 yards and a touchdown to lead the Patriots to a 31-21 victory.
The Broncos secondary has been vulnerable against the pass in the 2013 season, giving up 2,791 passing yards on the year, 28th in the league. Denver has missed their best defensive back, Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, for all but two games this season, which has impacted their pass defense. The Broncos have given up 18 passing touchdowns on the season, tied for 18th in the league. Most recently, Denver gave up 230 yards in the air and two touchdowns to Alex Smith in the Broncos’ 27-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, their first win of the season over a team with a winning record.
Peyton Manning vs. Patriots secondary
After facing young, electric, and mobile quarterback Cam Newton in Week 11, the Patriots have to change their mentality entirely for their Week 12 matchup with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Manning is having arguably the best season of his Hall of Fame career, throwing for 3,572 yards, 34 touchdowns, and six interceptions on the year. He is 16 touchdown passes away from tying the NFL single-season record of 50 that was set by Tom Brady in 2007. Manning has had mixed success in his career against the Patriots; he performed extremely well in his only start against them as a member of the Broncos, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns in Denver’s loss.
The Patriots secondary has been one of the better units in the league in 2013, allowing 2,292 yards in the air for 10th in the NFL. They also have held opposing quarterbacks to the second-lowest completion percentage in the league at just 56.7 percent. The Patriots have, however, given up 16 passing touchdowns on the year, tied for 15th in the league. It looks like safety Steve Gregory may be able to return after missing the game against Carolina with in injured thumb, but the key for the Patriots secondary will be what they can get out of Aqib Talib, who missed four weeks after injuring his hip and appeared to possibly have reinjured it against the Panthers. The Patriots secondary will have their hands full with the Broncos’ four-pronged receiving corps of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas, though Julius Thomas could miss the game with a knee injury he suffered against Kansas City.
Patriots rushing attack vs. Broncos
The Patriots running game has gotten better as the season has progressed, utilizing a combination of Stevan Ridley, LeGarette Blount, and Brandon Bolden to run for 1,269 yards on the year, good for 9th in the league, while their 11 rushing touchdowns have them tied for fifth in the NFL. The Patriots added another weapon Week 11 against the Panthers, as Shane Vereen was able to return after breaking his wrist Week 1 and led the team in total yards. One issue, however, has been the fumbling tendencies of Stevan Ridley, who lost a fumble with the Patriots inside the Panthers’ red zone that otherwise would have undoubtedly led to important points that could have helped the Patriots to a victory in Carolina. Ridley ran for 151 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos last season.
Denver’s run defense has been exceptional in 2013, allowing the 4th fewest rushing yards in the NFL through Week 11, with their 927 yards allowed putting them in a group of just eight teams that have allowed fewer than 1,000 rushing yards in 2013. They are also 4th in the league in yards allowed per game at 92.7, as well as fifth in yards allowed per rush at 3.7. The Broncos have shown to be vulnerable in the red zone, however, as they have allowed nine rushing touchdowns on the year, tied for 20th in the league. Denver’s rush defense has also forced five fumbles on the year, but has recovered just one.
Broncos rushing attack vs. Patriots
As expected, the Broncos running game has taken a back seat to Peyton Manning and the high flying passing attack, but utilizing the run has been a solid compliment Manning has used to keep opposing defenses honest in 2013. Denver has rushed for 1,051 yards on the season, 21st in the league, but has punched the ball into the end zone 13 times, two touchdowns behind the league-leading San Francisco 49ers. Knowshon Moreno has been the lead back for the Broncos this year, running for 600 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, while rookie Montee Ball has added 222 yards and three touchdowns of his own.
The Patriots run defense has been hampered since losing Vince Wilfork for the year Week 4 against the Falcons, and the Patriots yard totals have shown it, as the team is currently ranked 25th in yards allowed, giving up 1,257 this season. They have also given up an average of 125.7 rushing yards per game, 27th in the NFL. The Patriots have been stingy in the red zone, however, allowing just four rushing touchdowns on the season, tied for third fewest in the NFL. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have combined to try and fill the void left by Wilfork and tackle Tommy Kelly, who was also lost for the year. The Patriots held the Broncos to just 70 yards on the ground against Denver last year.
Patriots offensive line vs. Broncos defensive line
The Patriots offensive line suffered a blow after losing starting tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the year; Marcus Cannon has slid in to Vollmer’s starting position. The O-line has allowed Tom Brady to be sacked 28 times on the season, tied for 12th most in the league, while their 181 yards lost on sacks ranks them tied for 14th. The O-line allowed Brady to be sacked four times last year against the Broncos, and it is no question that Brady will need a good amount of protection if the Patriots hope to put up big numbers in their showdown with Denver.
Denver’s defense had some big holes to fill earlier in the season, as Elvis Dumervil left for Baltimore after a resigning mishap and Von Miller was suspended for the first six games of the year. Miller is back, however, and the Broncos have been able to tune up their pass rush since his return, recording 29 sacks in the 10 games they have played. Miller is still getting back into his rhythm on defense, but has sacks in back-to-back games and will be a force to be reckoned with if he gets back into the form that saw him record 11.5 sacks in 2011 and 18.5 sacks in 2013.
Patriots defensive line vs. Broncos offensive line
Since being named a captain of the Patriots defense earlier this year, defensive end Rob Ninkovich has stepped up his game in pass rush for New England, recording four sacks in the past three games and forcing one fumble. Sophomore Chandler Jones has taken major steps in his second year, recording 9.5 sacks of his own and proving to be a staple of the Patriots’ D-line. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have also chipped in since taking over for Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, with Vellano adding a sack and a fumble recovery and Chris Jones having five sacks.
The Broncos O-line has helped Peyton Manning to a historic season despite facing adversity before the season even began. Denver got some bad news early in training camp, as it was announced that starting center, and former Patriot, Dan Koppen would miss the entire season after tearing his ACL, and seven year veteran Manny Ramirez has started at center in his place. The Broncos have thrived in protecting Manning, allowing just 13 sacks on the season, the second-lowest in the NFL, only one more than the league-leading Detroit Lions. The line has also been responsible for helping the Broncos to the second highest total yards in the league with 4,555, 10 yards short of the league-leading New Orleans Saints. The O-line allowed Manning to be sacked twice in last year’s Patriots-Broncos matchup.
Patriots turnover rates vs. Broncos turnover rates
The Patriots normally high turnover rate took a hit on Monday night against the Panthers, as Stevan Ridley lost a fumble and Tom Brady threw an interception, while the Patriots defense did not record a takeaway for the first time in 36 games. The Patriots differential fell from +9 to +7 with the loss, but the team still ranks 2d in the AFC with 12 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. Aqib Talib leads the Patriots in takeaways with four interceptions on the year.
With Peyton Manning throwing passes for Denver, the interception rate against the Broncos is understandably low, with Manning throwing just six on the year. They have, however, given up 13 fumbles on the year, far and away the most in the AFC. The Broncos are tied for the AFC lead in interceptions with 13, while the defense has recovered four fumbles for an overall takeaway differential of -2. Danny Trevathan and Chris Harris are tied for the team lead in takeaways, with each having three interceptions on the season.
Patriots return game vs. Broncos return game
The Patriots kick returning has not been able to gain much traction on the season, as the team has attempted just 21 kickoffs on the year for 459 total yards and an average of 21.9 yards per return, each statistic good for 21st and 23d in the league, respectively. The Patriots longest return has been for 30 yards and no kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns. LeGarette Blount leads the team with 15 returns and 349 return yards on the year. Punt returning has been better for the Patriots, returning 27 punts for a total of 312 yards at a rate of 11.6 yards per return, good for 8th in the NFL. Julien Edelman has returned all but one of those punts at an average of 11.5 yards per return, while Danny Amendola returned one last week against the Panthers for 13 yards.
Arguably the most explosive return man in the NFL is Denver’s Trindon Holliday. Standing at just 5’5’’, the speedy Holliday is third in the NFL in yards per kick return at 32.3, with his long of 90 yards resulting in a touchdown. Holliday has been slightly less effective on punts, but still has returned 25 punts and gotten an average of 10 yards per return, adding a long of 81 that went for a touchdown as well. As a team, Denver is first in the NFL in yards per kick return with an average of 29.1, while they rank 10th in punt return average at 10.3 yards per return.
Patriots kicking vs. Broncos kicking
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski is leading the AFC in scoring after converting 24 of 25 field goal attempts and all 26 extra points he has attempted. After the Jets’ Nick Folk missed a field goal last week, Gostkowski took over the league lead in field goal percentage with his rate of 96 percent. Rookie punter Ryan Allen has also been effective for the Patriots, punting 50 times for 2,307 total yards, an average of 46.1 yards per punt. He has a long of 65 yards this season and has landed 17 punts inside the 20 yard line, while punting just eight into the end zone for touchbacks. On kickoffs, the Patriots themselves have allowed 381 yards on 19 returns for an average of 20.1 yards per return with no touchdowns allowed. On punts, the Patriots have allowed 17 returns for 158 total yards at a rate of 9.3 yards per return, also allowing no touchdowns.
Broncos’ kicker Matt Prater has attempted 15 field goals on the year and has converted 14, good for 93.3 percent, while making all 50 extra points he has attempted on the year. Punter Britton Colquitt has punted 39 times this season for 1,773 total yards, an average of 45.5 yards per punt. He has a long of 60 yards on the year and has landed 12 punts inside the 20 yard line, while he has punted just two balls into the end zone. On kickoffs, the Broncos have 442 yards on 18 kick returns with opponents gained an average of 24.6 yards per return. On punts, Denver has allowed 153 yards on 16 attempts for an average of just 9.6 yards per punt return.
Bill Belichick vs. Jack Del Rio
Bill Belichick has a record of just 5-5 against the Broncos since he took over as head coach of the Patriots, but he has won the past three meeting between the two teams, including all since John Fox took over as head coach. In 2005, the Patriots lost a divisional round playoff matchup to the Broncos in Denver led by Jake Plummer, but trounced Tim Tebow and Denver 45-10 in Foxborough on their way to the Super Bowl in 2011. In the Patriots and Broncos regular season matchup in Week 5 of 2012, the Patriots won 31-21 despite Peyton Manning throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has taken over interim head coaching duties for the Broncos as John Fox is recovering from a heart procedure he underwent on Nov. 4. Del Rio is 0-5 in his career as a head coach against the Patriots, with all five losses coming as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Del Rio-led Jaguars teams lost to the Patriots in the wild card round of the 2004 playoffs by a score of 28-3 and in the divisional round by a score of 31-20. The Broncos have won the two games Del Rio has served as head coach while Fox is recovering from surgery.