Unconventional preview: Patriots-Broncos

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 11 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 7-3 Patriots, coming off a frustrating 24-20 Monday night loss to the Carolina Panthers, host Max Choboian Craig Morton Norris Weese John Elway Brian Griese Tim Tebow Peyton Manning and the 9-1 Broncos in a showdown we’ve all been anticipating since the schedule was released. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started already …

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THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY AND PEYTON MANNING THAT I’LL BE WATCHING
1. Wes Welker: Well, obviously. I was sort of rooting for the ironic angle — namely, that Danny Amendola would play in this game, while Welker, far more durable historically than his de facto replacement with the Patriots, would be out. But after suffering a concussion against the Chiefs, he did practice Thursday, and so it looks like this Foxboro reunion is going to happen. I hope Patriots fans give him the proper acknowledgment of a huge cheer before rooting for him to drop everything thrown his way. He was an admirable and ridiculously productive player here for six seasons, and despite one memorable drop and a departure that actually seems to be growing more acrimonious, he deserves to be remembered for that.

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2. Julius Thomas: Actually, there seems a reasonable possibility that we won’t be seeing the Broncos’ dynamic tight end — he was reportedly very limited in practice Thursday after not participating Wednesday because of a knee injury suffered Sunday night against the Chiefs. It’s tough to exaggerate what a break it would be for the Patriots if he does not play. Thomas has 45 receptions — one of four Denver receivers with that many or more — for 590 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. If you don’t think he’s a matchup nightmare for the Patriots, close your eyes and imagine Brandon Spikes or the underwhelming Dont’a Hightower trying to cover him. I’m sorry I made you do that. Scary, wasn’t it?

3. LeGarrette Blount/Stevan Ridley: The Broncos actually have the fourth-best rushing defense in the league at 92.3 yards per game. A primary reason for that is obvious: Denver has put up so many points this season — 398, to be precise — that opponents are shoved into comeback mode early and abandon the run. It may be in the Patriots’ best interests to attack the Broncos on the ground early, try to control the ball, and thus keep it out of Manning’s hands. Stevan Ridley is capable of being a force if he can avoid doing his Cleveland Gary thing and putting the ball on the ground, and Blount is a battering ram who could have a 2001 Antowain Smith moment in him on Sunday. I’m not suggesting taking the ball out of Brady’s hands entirely. But a capable running game would go a long way toward opening up the field for Brady while also keeping Manning on the sideline.

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COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: His 40th birthday is coming up in February, and he’s four seasons removed from the final NFL game of his Canton-worthy 15-year career — coincidentally, as a member of the Broncos, not the Patriots. His career began so long ago that he actually wore that Patriots jersey.

And yet I’m only being semi-facetious when I suggest that Ty Law could help the battered and tattered Patriots defensive backfield Sunday. We still see Law on most Patriots game days as an analyst on Comcast SportsNet New England’s pre- and postgame coverage, and doesn’t look much different than he did, say, in 2005 when he picked off 10 passes for the Jets.

Law was as smart as he was talented, and that ability to read and outwit opposing quarterbacks is one reason he had nine career interceptions against Manning, the most by any opponent. In a great piece this week by ESPN’s Greg Garber, Law acknowledged how difficult it became to prepare for Manning as the quarterback got better and smarter in his early years, and said Manning and Brady alike aren’t going to be duped by any fancy schemes.

“[When Manning was young] he telegraphed everything,” Law told Garber. “Now, he’ll eat you alive. He kept evolving. Now, he can look you off, throw it at the last minute. I’d play like I was pressing but it was going to be a zone — and he knew. All that running around, shifting. You can’t get too sexy with Peyton — or Tom, either.

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“Don’t bother, it’s just a lot of wasted steps. You’re not fooling them with that [expletive].”

Aqib Talib is excellent when healthy and sane. But don’t you wish Belichick had found a way to clone a couple of Laws for use at a time like this?

BETTER QUARTERBACK: BRADY, BARELY. BETTER ACTOR: MANNING, BY A MILE:

This evaluation/perspective of the state of the never-ending Brady vs. Manning debate — via Bill Barnwell at Grantland — is exactly what they mean when they say the truth hurts, right?

I can’t help but notice that all the old knocks on the elder quarterback now apply to his counterpart. Somehow, some way, the Tom Brady we’ve seen over the past few years has turned into the old Peyton Manning.

There’s no doubt Brady has had some big-game hiccups in recent years that would fit with Manning’s early-career profile — you know, before he won his one championship. But none of it changes this: Brady has had the better career. He’s 9-4 against Manning, has two more rings, and generally did more with less, at least on offense (and excluding 2007). If you flipped their careers — meaning Manning as a lifelong Patriot and Brady following the same Colts/Broncos path — I still think Brady ends up with the head-to-head and championships advantage.

But there’s no doubt Manning has him beat in one of their ancillary interests: as an appealing commercial pitchman/actor.

Brady looks the part of an actor. Manning almost seems to have the comedic timing to be one. It’s like comparing Tom Cruise — if he were foot taller — to Tom Hanks.

Those old Manning MasterCard commercials were priceless, though the phrase “Cut that meat!” still comes back to haunt him with occasional mocking chant. The best one for my money begins at the 2:25-ish mark of the above clip, with Manning at his mock-oblivious best:

Manning, on his hotel patio: “Morning.”

Housekeeper on the next patio over: “Take a hike.”

Manning: “You know, I’m gonna do that. [Pause.] Weather here’s sweet.”

Great stuff. To be fair, Manning apparently did get a head start on Brady as an entertainer:

I’m not sure if this is from the ESPN’s recent “30 for 30” on the Manning family or from Jim Nantz’s private video collection, but I am pretty sure the show is titled “The Boy Who Looked Like A Thumb.”

PREDICTION, OR SHOULDN’T GRONK’S DESIRED SUPER POWER BE ‘WILLING KUECHLY INVISIBLE’ AND NOT ‘TIME-TRAVELING TO FLORIDA’? It’s probably strange to say this considering the Patriots scored 55 points in their game previous to this past Sunday’s, but I just can’t see them keeping up with Denver for the entire 60 minutes. They can trade punches with them for a while if Brady is at his sharpest, Rob Gronkowski hauls in the vast majority of his targets, and Josh McDaniels doesn’t abandon the running game early. Still, with four key defensive backs — Talib, Steve Gregory, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard, who just had knee surgery — all listed on the injury report as of Friday afternoon, it’s hard to fathom how the Patriots will slow a Denver offense that leads the NFL in total yards per game (455.5), passing yards per game (350.4), and absolutely ridiculous 39.8 points per game, which is 11.6 more than the No. 2 scoring team, the Bears. I’d love to be wrong, because my admiration for this resilient Patriots team has grown as the season has gone on. But this time, I can’t see a way around it: Manning will do the cutting, and the Patriots are the meat.
Broncos 37, Patriots 27

(Last week’s prediction: Patriots 32, Panthers 29. Final score: Panthers 24, Patriots 20. Season record: 5-5.)

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