This is one of those games that is circled the day the NFL schedule is released in April, and as we know, there is much more than just the quarterbacks to highlight when dissecting a matchup between the visiting Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. Receiver Wes Welker, for one, adds another intriguing storyline as he returns to town for the first time since signing with the Broncos this year.
The Broncos (9-1) are the class of the AFC, and arguably the entire NFL, after knocking the Kansas City Chiefs from the unbeaten ranks this past Sunday. Now comes a tough test against a resilient but depleted 7-3 Patriots club that needs a victory to keep pace in the overall AFC playoff race.
Here to break it down for us are NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jeff Legwold (Broncos):
Reiss: Jeff, let's get right to the news before we dive into the X's and O's. I expect Welker to receive rousing cheers from the fans here because he was a beloved player from 2007 to 2012. Most Patriots fans, as I sense it, didn't want to see him go and hold the team more responsible for the departure. Any chance Welker's “homecoming” actually doesn't happen because of the concussion he sustained?
Legwold: Mike, because Welker was removed from Sunday night's game with a concussion, he is subject to the league protocol. That means he won't be allowed to practice fully until Friday at the earliest and then only if he has passed a baseline test early in the week. The Broncos have said they expect him to be OK and he will obviously want to play, but Friday would be the first real litmus test of their plans with him. Welker has dealt with some ankle issues this season as well, but he has had every bit the impact in the offense the Broncos had hoped to have when they signed him. He has lined up much of the time in the slot, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase has also put him out wide and he scored a touchdown earlier this season on a route that began with Welker in the backfield. Manning knows why Brady liked throwing Welker the ball so much.
That said, people here asked Welker plenty about his departure and while he's said all the right things, what were Brady's thoughts on the matter?
Reiss: No question that he was personally disappointed. Welker remains one of his closest friends. I think Brady even said it at one point, you go through an initial period of dealing with the emotions and then you move forward and focus on the task at hand. That's part of what makes Brady the great competitor that he is, the ability to compartmentalize things and have that laser-like singular focus. There were quite a few growing pains for the passing offense through the first eight games, but it has looked better the past two contests. It's no coincidence that the results have improved as tight end Rob Gronkowski has rounded into form, receiver Danny Amendola seems to be taking steps forward and running back Shane Vereen has been activated from the injured reserve list.
The Patriots are going to need to put up some points to help a depleted defense. So what type of defense can they expect to see from the Broncos?
Legwold: Jack Del Rio is the Broncos' interim head coach these days after John Fox's open-heart surgery earlier this month, but Del Rio is still calling the defense on game day as well. The players like and respect Del Rio and have responded to him since his arrival before the 2012 season. Del Rio uses everybody in uniform on game day -- he's used nine different defensive backs in varying roles in the defense in some games, for example -- and overall he's aggressive. He likes to change things up in the pass rush and match up on the outside with plenty of man coverages. It is no accident the past three games have been the best for the Broncos' defense after a rough start to the season in pass defense, particularly with so many teams trying to play catch-up against the Broncos. But the past three games are also the first Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller have played at the same time. Miller missed six games with a drug policy suspension and Woodyard then missed two games with a neck injury he suffered against Dallas. With them both in there, Del Rio can do more things. The Broncos know they have to get some pressure in the middle of the field against Brady and get the receivers out of their routes if they can.
Defensively, how concerned are the Patriots about the health of their own secondary at the moment?
Reiss: Very concerned, and it's why I thought they might have made a more aggressive push for free-agent safety Ed Reed when he became available last week. Especially in a game like this, it's not a good time to be short in the secondary, and it's a banged-up group for the Patriots. All three of their top cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (groin), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) -- are dealing with ailments that will affect their availability and/or effectiveness in some form. Starting safety Steve Gregory (broken thumb) missed Monday's loss but returned to practice Wednesday and that probably means he will play. So that helps them a bit. Still, this has the potential to be a bad matchup for the Patriots this week based on the health snapshot.
If they could order up some bone-chilling temperatures for a Sunday prime-time game in late November, maybe it helps a bit. But is there any reason to think, based on what you've seen, that would even slow down Manning at this point?
Legwold: Folks both near and far have talked about Manning's wobbly passes all season. His ankle and whether or not he wears a glove on his throwing hand are always cause for a this-just-in bulletin. In the end, bad ankle and all, he leads the league in completions (286), yards passing (3,572) and passing touchdowns (34). Those 34 touchdowns still top the number of touchdowns scored by any other team in the league -- New Orleans, Seattle and Cincinnati have 33 touchdowns overall. After four neck surgeries he's a pitcher now, working the corners. He throws the fastball when he needs it and while it may not always be as pretty as people would like, he gets the ball where it needs to be. How he plays in the cold is still a bit of a question mark given his performance on a historically cold day here in the playoff loss, but this Broncos offense has a lot of ways to come at a defense and the only real way to slow Manning down is to get consistent pressure in the middle of the field so he can't work his progressions in the comfort of the pocket.
This is the 17th time, including three playoff games, Bill Belichick has faced Manning since Belichick accepted the New England job. That's a lot of road traveled. How do you think he wants to defend this offense as compared to how he's attacked Manning in the past?
Reiss: Personnelwise, we can expect the Patriots to be in their sub packages (either nickel or dime) for the majority of the game. That's a contrast from what we saw Monday night when the Patriots mostly played their base defense against the power-running Panthers. In this game, when factoring in the Broncos' three-receiver offense and the view that tight end Julius Thomas is probably going to be seen more as a receiver, I'd project them to go much lighter in the box and almost dare the Broncos to run against them. Of course, the other factor with Manning is maintaining discipline pre-snap and not tipping intentions, which is what opponents often say about facing Brady. If Manning has the answers to the test before the snap, it's going to be tough to win. He's just too smart. So those are some general thoughts on a defensive approach as I think the Patriots will have to get creative to cover up for some of their personnel issues, and take some chances on third down.
The Patriots really struggled on third down against the Panthers, who were 8-of-11. Offensively in that game, the Patriots didn't cash in enough in the red zone. Those are two big areas of focus for them. What are the top areas the Broncos are talking about for improvement?
Legwold: Offensively, they've surrendered just 13 sacks -- Detroit's Matthew Stafford is the only quarterback to have started every game who has been sacked less than Manning -- but the Broncos want to limit the hits. Manning was not sacked or barely touched for that matter by the Chiefs this past Sunday, but the Broncos need that to continue to keep Manning's ankle from getting any worse. They also, even as they line up in their beloved three-wide receiver set (75 snaps against the Chiefs including penalty plays), have to find a way to run with some more efficiency to keep the play-action game at least on the minds of the defenders. To that end the Broncos had a season-high 21 running plays out of the shotgun against Kansas City. Defensively they do plenty of good work only to watch it unravel in one big play. Last season they surrendered 38 pass plays of at least 20 yards in the entire regular season. This season that total is already 46. They've been better over the past month -- they haven't given up a pass play of at least 31 yards in the past four games -- but the trend has to continue.
In terms of big-play threats, where is Gronkowski in his return in terms of his health and performance right now?
Reiss: I'd say somewhere between a Half-Gronk and the Full-Gronk, so maybe about 80 percent. He's getting closer to a full workload after playing 51 of 79 snaps in his debut versus the Jets, followed by 33 of 65 against Miami, 48 of 75 against Pittsburgh and 63 of 72 on Monday night against the Panthers (snaps included penalties). Since Gronkowski didn't have a preseason, we've reached the point now where he's had what is essentially a preseason within the regular season. The past two games, in particular, things have seemed to click.
One of the fun parts about these “Double Coverage” assignments is to learn something about the opposing team that maybe slips beneath the everyday radar. Do you have a player or X factor that might be easy to overlook?
Legwold: Easy for the Broncos because he's often camouflaged by his more famous teammates, but the fact Woodyard has never been voted to the Pro Bowl says a lot of his peers just aren't doing their homework when they fill out the ballots. Last season Woodyard was the first player since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to finish a season with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions. And he wasn't even voted as a Pro Bowl alternate despite being just the 12th player to put together that stat line since the sack because an official statistic in 1982. Woodyard is an every-down player in an age of specialists, a leader with top-end work ethic and elite speed to the ball. Mike Shanahan, who kept Woodyard as an undrafted rookie in '08 -- Shanahan's last year in Denver -- called him “everything you want in a football player.” The teams that don't pay attention to him have a long day on offense.
From your end -- and I know everyone is going to talk about the quarterbacks -- but is there a player, or players, who can make a difference in this one other than Brady?
Reiss: I'll go with the returners on special teams -- Julian Edelman (punt) and Josh Boyce (kickoff). This is one of those games where the Patriots are going to need all the points they can get to keep up with Manning and the NFL's top-scoring team, and maybe special teams can chip in. The inclusion of the speedy Boyce as the primary kickoff returner caught my eye Monday night, even though he didn't have any opportunities. The ball likely won't be carrying as far on Sunday night in Foxborough, Mass., so Boyce should have a greater chance to make an impact. Edelman is excellent in his role as a punt returner. For the Patriots to win, they will need to play a good complementary game and special teams are a big part of that.