After staring at a possible 1-3 record early in the second half against the Buffalo Bills last week, the New England Patriots put up 45 points in the 2nd half to improve their record to 2-2. The team is starting to get healthy by the day, especially with the news that tight end Aaron Hernandez returned to practice this week. This week’s game will be trickier than last week as they take on a team they are familiar with from last season and a quarterback who Bill Belichick has seen numerous times over the last decade.
The team I am talking about is the Denver Broncos and the quarterback is Peyton Manning. After shipping Tim Tebow to the New York Jets, general manager John Elway brought in Manning to improve the passing game. While there were some blips early on (3 INT’s at Atlanta), Manning had his best performance of the season last week vs. the Raiders completing 30 of 38 passes for three touchdowns. When Manning and Brady go against each other, most of the time, these games turn out to be classics. As you will see, I don’t expect this game to be any different.
Here are my keys to Sunday’s matchup in Foxboro:
1. A Porter Carrying the Secondary: Last season, Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense were able to torch the Broncos’ defense in their two matchups, scoring 40+ points in both games. With that known deficiency, the Broncos brought in former Saints’ cornerback Tracy Porter to be the number two cornerback next to Champ Bailey. The Patriots, in the past, have seldom thrown at Bailey. Brady will look to go elsewhere with the football and if he makes a mistake, we know Porter has the ability to take it to the endzone like he did Week 1 vs. the Steelers and in the Super Bowl victory against Peyton’s Colts a few years ago. The good thing for New England is that Porter, in his last two games, has a combined three tackles, zero pass deflections, and zero interceptions!
2. A Familiar Face Under Center: The key to the Broncos winning this game has to be keeping Peyton Manning upright in the pocket. That could be a problem this week for Denver despite the Patriots’ issues with sacking the quarterback. The Denver offensive line had been known for continuity with their starters on the offensive line playing in every game last season.
Last week, Denver lost its starting center, JD Walton, to a broken ankle. Enter in former Patriots’ center Dan Koppen. Koppen has not been the same since he tore his ACL against the Chargers in Week 2 of last season. The Patriots did not feel he could stay healthy and give them the same productivity that he gave them for the last decade. I expect New England to try to test Koppen on Sunday using the interior part of the defensive line with players such as Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. If the defensive line can neutralize the center, it might help create some pressure on Manning and lead to mistakes.
3. Where are you running Willis?: When Tim Tebow was traded, people thought that the Broncos’ offense would take a hit in the ground game. On the contrary, it has thrived with Manning under center. The leader behind the running attack is Willis McGahee. McGahee has been a problem for the Patriots in the past and it may continue to be a problem the way Willis has played lately. McGahee has run for 100+ yards in two of his last three games. In both meetings last year, the Patriots held him in check holding him to about 75 rushing yards per game. With the Patriots’ success on the ground last week with Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden, it is hard to believe that this edition of Manning vs. Brady could be decided with the running game.
Tom Brady is 8-4 against Peyton Manning in their 12 matchups. The forecast for Sunday is supposed to be very ugly and rainy, which does favor Tom Brady. These are two teams that can light up a scoreboard with the weapons that they both have in the passing game. I give New England a slight edge because I still don’t think the Broncos’ secondary can neutralize New England’s aerial attack. This game is going to come down to the final drive and I think the Patriots come up with the interception late against Manning like they did two years ago.
PATRIOTS 31 BRONCOS 27