But whether it's a bronco or horseshoe gracing the side of Manning's protective headwear, whenever No. 18 travels to town, it means the Patriots have a tough test on hand.
Like the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos enter their Week 5 matchup with an even 2-2 record, and both have followed an identical win pattern, having sandwiched losses in Weeks 2-3 with wins in Weeks 1 and 4.
But while much of the talk has centered on Brady and Manning, the Patriots know that for the second consecutive week, the offensive line will have its hands full with a pair of elite pass rushers who can affect the dynamic of a game when not contained. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil can do it all off the edge, beating opposing tackles with a diverse skill set and multitude of techniques.
With kickoff closing in, here are the five things we'll be watching for:
1. Manning vs. Belichick chess match. The game has been profiled as Manning versus Brady, but the two won't step on the field at the same time aside from pregame warm-ups. More appropriately, it's Manning versus Belichick and the Patriots defense, as they will be charged with the task of slowing down Manning's potent offensive attack. Belichick has experienced success in containing Manning before, and the back-and-forth adjustments made throughout the game by Manning and the Patriots' defense resemble something of a chess match. The coach has said that Denver's offense mirrors Manning's old Indianapolis attack, so expect Belichick to have a unique plan in place to attack and defend it.
2. Protecting Brady. As was previously noted, the Broncos have a strong pass rush that features not just Miller and Dumervil, but a scheme that Belichick says incorporates a number of other rushers from multiple levels. Belichick says Denver brings blitzes from linebackers and secondary members, which means Brady will have to do well to identify pressure pre-snap and pass along necessary adjustments to his line. The Patriots receivers appear to have the edge over Denver's secondary, and keeping Brady protected could afford his passing attack another big day.
3. Defend explosive plays -- and beware of Demaryius. When Manning chose to sign with Denver this offseason, part of the allure appeared to be the supporting cast of young receivers he would be able to throw to, led by third-year pro Demaryius Thomas, the biggest receiver he's ever had at his disposal. Not only is Thomas big, he can fly, and also quickly turn a short pitch-and-catch into a long gain. He's explosive in the open field, but doesn't need much space to accelerate from zero to 60. In his last six games (dating back to 2011), Thomas has six receptions of over 40 yards, including two 70-yard-plus touchdowns. The Patriots can't let Thomas break free with the ball in his hands, and must do a good job of keeping him in front of the secondary.
4. Offensive balance. Plenty went right for the Patriots' offense in its second-half explosion during Week 4, and some of that can be attributed to the balance established between the running and passing game. Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden chewed up yards on the ground, and Brady was surgical in finding a number of receivers for big gains. Achieving the same balance this Sunday would allow the Patriots to control the tempo of the game while wearing down the Denver defense and keeping Manning on the sideline. Belichick dissected the importance of balance for an offense earlier in the week, and it would seem the team would aim to reach it again in Week 5.
5. Sixty-minute effort. A second-half surge in Week 4 doesn't entirely atone for what was a slow start, and now it's time to see if the Patriots can do in Week 5 what they have not in the past three weeks: play a full 60 minutes of complete football. Against two quality opponents this year, a lack of execution during portions of the game has left the Patriots in defeat, and they'll face another solid foe this weekend in the Broncos. The Patriots need to string together a full four-quarter effort in all three phases of the game to notch their first home victory of 2012.