- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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Immediately, the matchup became one of the most anticipated of the season, as anytime two sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterbacks are involved in a game it will draw interest.
But the stakes were raised even more when former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker signed a free-agent contract this past offseason with the Broncos. As if the 14th edition of Brady vs. Manning wasn’t enough, the added layer of intrigue with Welker making his return to Gillette Stadium, where he was an incredibly productive fan favorite for six seasons, kicked things up another notch.
The player-related intrigue isn’t the only reason many will be watching this Sunday night, as the game also pits two top AFC contenders. The Broncos own the AFC’s top seed entering Week 12, while the Patriots are third (the Colts hold the edge based on a better conference record).
There’s still plenty of time left in the regular season, but the result of this game could resurface down the line as the two teams get closer to the postseason.
No matter what lens the game is viewed through, it’s one of substantial significance.
Here’s what we will be we watching for on Sunday night.
1. Welker’s return Welker has been listed as probable after passing the requisite concussion tests in order to take the field Sunday night. Early this week, Tom Brady spoke confidently that Welker will play, and others have since echoed his sentiments, and it appears they are right on. With Welker a "definite" to play, according to interim head coach Jack Del Rio, seeing how Welker performs and impacts the game will be of interest to everyone watching and those in the stadium. Despite the fact that he’s now wearing blue and orange as his primary uniform colors, our guess is that Welker will be received with a round ovation of support by those at Gillette Stadium.
2. Secondary health. While Welker and tight end Julius Thomas are health question marks for the Broncos' offense, the Patriots' secondary is also banged up. All three top cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) -- practiced on a limited basis this week, and if they are ready to play Sunday, how those injuries impact them will be a pivotal factor. Handling the Broncos' passing game with a fully healthy secondary is no small feat. Doing it with a group that is working through bumps and bruises is a major challenge.
3. 'Spin the dial' D. A week after facing a Panthers defense predicated upon four-man pressure with zone defenses behind it, the Patriots will face a defense that, as wide receiver Julian Edelman said this week, likes to “spin the dial.” That’s a decidedly different feel and will put the pressure on the Patriots' receivers to beat man coverage with precise routes and physical play at the line of scrimmage. While his status for Sunday night is still unknown, top Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey could return to the field for the first time in over a month due to a foot injury.
4. Solving Peyton. At the heart of the Broncos' offensive juggernaut attack is Peyton Manning, the four-time NFL MVP who is on pace to shatter the record for touchdowns in a single season that is currently held by Tom Brady. While the Chiefs didn’t intercept or sack Manning last Sunday night, they provided a game plan of how to -- at least in part -- slow him down. They were able to manufacture enough pressure with four rushers to blanket some of the Broncos' receivers down the field. Manning is going to get his, meaning that the Patriots’ goal on defense won’t be to shut him out entirely, but rather to contain him and keep him off the field as much as possible with sustained offensive drives.
5. Running back rotation. Stevan Ridley has fumbled twice in as many games, though he has matched those turnovers with a touchdown in each contest. Bill Belichick has said time and again that the best way to slow down Manning is to keep him off the field. The best way to keep him off the field is through long drives, accomplished by killing clock on the ground. Ridley is the Patriots' best between-the-tackles rusher, but will concerns over ball security limit his role? Shane Vereen projects to play an even larger role than he did last week as the team’s up-tempo offense back, but will LeGarrette Blount chip into Ridley’s workload also? He ran well against Carolina this past Monday night.