Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday night home game against the Denver Broncos (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET)
Mike: Tedy, it's not often that the Patriots are underdogs at home. That speaks to how the Broncos are viewed. They might be the best team in the NFL.
Tedy: They looked very impressive last week. I thought some of their deficiencies could be exposed by a team like the Chiefs, but I was very impressed with how efficient they were offensively and the big plays they continue to make defensively. Not having their head coach in John Fox, and having the quality of your coaching staff with a Jack Del Rio to maintain focus and Peyton Manning as your de facto offensive coordinator, they're a team that not only has a lot of talent but a lot of experience and they know how to deal with adverse situations.
Mike: The NFL has some exciting up-and-coming quarterbacks with Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, among others. But this is a night to respect two greats at the position who have done it over time.
Tedy: This is a special game to see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning play. You have to think that you don't have a lot of these left. This is instant classic material, a must-watch game that fans have to appreciate. I know I do. Even when I played in these games, watching Tom do what he does and then having the perspective of having to try to stop Peyton, everything is just more important this week. You know what the challenge is, especially defensively. It's something that these players for the Patriots should want to rise to the challenge to meet.
Mike: And you know there's another player on the Broncos roster who feels the same way -- Wes Welker. He was a heart-and-soul player with the Patriots. It's going to be tough for some Patriots followers to see him on the other sideline. I'd be shocked if he doesn't get a rousing ovation.
Tedy: If the fans in Gillette Stadium are what I've come to know, they will cheer for Wes and there will be an ovation. They need to stand up and give him a standing ovation to start the game. You can cheer against him once the game starts. Boo him a little bit too. But initially, show him the appreciation that a guy who caught nearly 700 balls as a Patriot deserves.
Mike: He looks like the same Welker to me. Still making plays, moving the chains, and has actually been more of a red zone threat in Denver than he was in New England.
Tedy: Wes is on a different team with a different quarterback and he's the most productive receiver on that team and without a doubt their toughest receiver. When I watch Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, I see a lot of complaining and looking for calls after every snap. They want defensive holding, illegal contact and pass interference. Then there's Welker. He just gets open, catches the ball, takes big hits and gets up and does it again. He also has the ability to make different routes look similar. He took a big shot last week, but believe me, he'll be there.
Mike: They've mostly used him in the slot and he's played 76.2 percent of the offensive snaps. He played 87 percent of the offensive snaps in his final season with the Patriots. So the workload is down a bit, but the production isn't.
Tedy: In Week 4, against the Eagles, it showed some of the creativity they've used with Welker as he scored a touchdown out of the backfield. They've run the famous pick route at the line of scrimmage against man coverage. Then last week, you saw the fake pick route (second quarter, 2:00), with Welker and Decker running at each other to give the illusion of a pick route before Welker turned it back around and ran it back in like an angle route. It's just something where you work all week to defend that pick by getting your disruption at the line of scrimmage, but when he does that you put up your hands and say "You got me."
Mike: Let's get into Manning a bit. From afar you hear all the stories about wobbly passes and lack of arm strength, but the numbers are just off the charts.
Tedy: What can I say about Manning that hasn't been said already? Not much. He's one of the best quarterbacks of all time. You can talk about his intelligence, his control at the line of scrimmage and everything else, but it basically comes down to this question if you're the Patriots: How do you prepare to face someone like him? It starts with the fact that this is a critical week for the backup quarterback in New England, Ryan Mallett. He's the one who provides the look for the defense as the scout-team quarterback. One of the biggest victories we had against Peyton was when Damon Huard was the backup and he was the scout-team quarterback. Coach Belichick ended up giving him a game ball. Mallett has done it before and that experience should help him with the pre-snap audibles, gyrations, fluctuations, quick releases of the football and uncanny accuracy.
Mike: How did you approach Manning's work at the line of scrimmage in your playing days?
Tedy: One thing I learned early in my career was not to listen to any of that. Just when you think you figured out what was going on, he says "Frisco" and "Frisco" is a code word for San Francisco, and San Francisco is on the West Coast, and if you look at the map San Francisco is on the left side so it's a play to the offensive left. You hear 'Jersey, Jersey' and you think it's going to the right because it's on the right side of the map. A city call is a run. A state call is a pass. The bottom line is this: 'Don't outthink yourself, because Peyton Manning is always two steps ahead.' He'll call out city names, college mascots, professional team mascots, but you just can't focus on any of that. You have to react to what you see in front of you and trust your keys from the offensive line and what you get post-snap and from the formations they are lined up in. A lot of it is that he wants you to listen to him to make you think you have the answer. That's when he's got you.
Mike: In terms of weather, it's supposed to be a cold night. You'd think the Patriots like that forecast.
Tedy: Peyton's arm obviously isn't what it used to be. He doesn't throw the same spiral Brady throws. It's more like a knuckleball now. You get those cold temperatures in Foxborough, which is what it is supposed to be, and if there is a little wind ... we'll see how that arm holds up. Is Manning going to throw the ball 50 yards down the field on you on a cold Foxborough night? No. These are going to be passes that are at the line of scrimmage, or 5-10 yards down the field. He is not going to want to take deep shots because these receivers have great ability after the catch. Especially Demaryius Thomas.
Mike: I've been thinking about the most likely defense for the Patriots to employ and I think a dime (six defensive backs) gives them their best chance against the Broncos' primary three-receiver package. I'd also move safety Devin McCourty to cornerback for this game because like you said, winning early in the route is the key and I want one of my best players in the secondary as part of that.
Tedy: You have to anticipate that Denver is going to be able to move the ball up and down the field. This won't be a defense dominated game. So victories by the Patriots defense will be forcing this Denver offense to kick field goals. That has to be part of the mindset, playing good red area defense. The Patriots rank 11th in the NFL in red zone defense, in terms of touchdown percentage, and they need that type of play to continue. The Broncos have been very good at utilizing bunch formations in the red area. Usually when you have a bunch formation, as they did in Week 4 against the Eagles (first quarter, 10:24), the adjustment defensively is that the defender on the outside has the first out, the defender on the inside has the first in, and maybe you try to match up the point man in the bunch, the point receiver on the line of scrimmage, maybe you try to match him up in man coverage and try to get a jam. So you're anticipating one going out, one going in, and the other being locked up. In the Week 4 play, Decker goes to the out, the inside defensive back anticipated Welker winning with inside leverage, but Welker also went out and it turned into a double out. So it was another easy touchdown for Welker in the flat. It seems like this offense always has an adjustment for what you anticipate is coming.
Mike: And if it's not Demaryius Thomas, it's Julius Thomas.
Tedy: Julius Thomas is another basketball player at the tight end position. He's been highly productive with 10 touchdowns. They just have so many weapons. Julius Thomas. Wes Welker. Eric Decker. Demaryius Thomas. Knowshon Moreno.
Mike: So where do you see a potential weakness?
Tedy: Last week, when they played Kansas City, I was focusing on two spots on the offensive line -- center Manny Ramirez and left tackle Chris Clark. These are injury replacements and Clark obviously isn't at the same level of Ryan Clady, and Ramirez is not Dan Koppen or J.D. Walton. I thought the Chiefs had a chance to exploit those matchups with Dontari Poe over the center and Tamba Hali and Justin Houston over Clark at different times. But Manning wasn't even touched. They didn't even knock him down. So this is going to be a major problem for the Patriots because the Chiefs have better pass-rushers than they do. So it's going to be difficult for them to get pressure on Peyton, because of the short amount of time he holds the ball and the quality of play of Denver's offensive line. I went in thinking Ramirez and Clark would be deficiencies, but after a game like that, you start to think they are more part of the solution than the problem. What they did last week was very impressive. I don't know if you can expect any up-the-middle pressure from the Patriots. As admirable of a job that Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have done at stopping the run, we didn't see much pocket push from them against the Panthers unless they had Chandler Jones inside over the guard. They might need to do that more this week with Jones to get that interior push.
Mike: Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich was talking about how Manning is one of the toughest quarterbacks to get to, often times because the ball is out so quick.
Tedy: If you can't get any pressure on Manning, and that's said with the Chiefs' struggles in mind, I think you have to have defensive backs disrupt the receivers at the line of scrimmage to throw off that timing just a little bit to give that pass a little more time to get there. That leads me to one other thought: It would be out of character, but do you pressure Manning with the blitz? That would be a major tendency-breaker, but when you have a defensive secondary that's obviously hurt and you're undermanned, maybe you throw something at him that he wouldn't expect and that's pressure.
Mike: We've spent all this time focusing on the Broncos offense and it's all about the passing game. It makes sense to think the Patriots will dare them to run.
Tedy: You can't forget about Denver's running game. Peyton has learned what a weapon the run game can be if a team is geared up to try to stop the pass. Moreno has been that guy for him. As a defense, when playing against Peyton, you often tell the group up front 'We need you to stop the run with six in this game.' They spread you out in those spread or empty sets and you've got to match up. So the front seven becomes the front six and you're not getting any help stopping the run. If you can't stop it, that's going to be a long day.
Mike: Defensively, it's been a challenge for me to get a good read on Denver because they are often playing with a lead.
Tedy: In the defensive index, it shows that if you can prevent them from making big plays, there are some holes. I have them ranked as the 22nd defense in the league. Other than turnovers, everything else is average -- 15th in third-down conversions, 21st in red zone efficiency, and 26th in points per game. So you can anticipate this is going to be a shootout.
Mike: Personnel-wise, what stands out to you?
Tedy: Danny Trevathan is one of their big-play linebackers. I really like the way he shows up on the ball and catches it. A lot of people might remember him from Week 1 when he let go of the ball before reaching the end zone, which was on SportCenter's "Not Top 10 List" for a few weeks. While it was poor judgment, if you look at the play itself, just to make it was impressive. He also had a big play against the Cowboys in picking off Tony Romo to seal the game. He knocked the ball off of the Chiefs' Anthony Sherman last week.
Mike: I'm curious to see how the defense responds to potentially being in a closer game.
Tedy: Overall, they have very good speed on defense. Wesley Woodyard and Trevathan are two speedy, undersized linebackers. Defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton have really shown up the past couple of weeks. They've made plays against the run, making tackles for a loss. Derek Wolfe is a solid player and they rely on Von Miller for their pass rush. I don't think you attempt to run sideline to sideline against this defense with the speed of their linebackers. I think offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has to come up with a great scheme running plan to get angles on Vickeron and Knighton, and then try to get a big body such as Logan Mankins or Dan Connolly on Trevathan and Woodyard and they can be engulfed.
Mike: They have dealt with some injuries in the secondary, which makes me think the Patriots will view that area as the one to attack. We remember they went with the up-tempo turbo attack last year and it was effective, keeping Miller on the sideline for extended stretches of the action.
Tedy: This is the fifth week back for Miller since his suspension, and usually it takes a few weeks for a player to get back. You need that makeshift training camp and that's what he's had. So once you get that, you start to feel a lot more comfortable, so this could be the time we see him pick it up even more.
Mike: Anyone standing out to you in their secondary?
Tedy: A lot of people don't know about safety Duke Ihenacho, but ever since that Week 1 game against the Ravens, he's been playing good football. He got hurt a few weeks ago but he's back. I've heard he's a hard worker and he comes downhill hard. He's a big hitter and it looks as though he takes good angles. He's really flashed on film for me. He's been productive for them and I think he can make an impact in this game. I felt like last year was a struggle for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He looked like he didn't want to play football in Philadelphia. Lack of effort. Maybe losing the way they did was something that took away all his motivation. It looks like he's interested again and I think that's a testament to Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator, and John Fox, getting him on the same page. It doesn't hurt that you're 9-1. He struggled in zone coverage early in the year and can he still be undisciplined? Yes.
Mike: We shouldn't overlook special teams. It caught my eye that rookie Josh Boyce was back on kickoff returns Monday for the first time. He gives them some big-play potential there. And Julian Edelman on punt returns is one of the best in the game. In a game where the Patriots know they will need to score points to keep up, that area could be key.
Tedy: For the Broncos, Trindon Holliday is a problem. If he gets one big return, I don't know if Coach Belichick will kick it to him again. This is where the value of Stephen Gostkowski comes in. He's one of the strongest legs in the league. If he can kick it through the end zone on a cold night, that would be a big weapon for the Patriots, because if it's short or 2-3 yards deep in the end zone, he'll still bring it back. Gostkowski was able to make it hang last week to prevent a couple of returns, but I don't know if that will happen when that temperature drops.
Mike: It's been a tough year on the prediction front for me, Tedy. I'm 5-5. I have to start thinking outside the hash marks, so I'm expecting the unexpected. Patriots 35, Broncos 31.
Tedy: Reiss, I want to agree with you on this one, but I can't. The injuries on defense for the Patriots are starting to take their toll and the weapons Denver has on offense are endless. I was very impressed with the play of the Denver offensive line last week. Brady and the offense will put points on the board to keep this close, but the Broncos win this round and hopefully there is a rematch of this classic quarterback matchup in the playoffs. Broncos 34, Patriots 30.