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Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: October 5, 2:51 PM ET
Matching wits with Manning

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday's home game against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):

Mike: The Patriots enter this game on a high note after last week's 52-28 road victory over the Bills, which was a potential signature moment for them in terms of overcoming adversity and learning about themselves.

Tedy: I had my doubts. I thought the Bills had a great chance of pulling off the win, but the Patriots showed how they still own the AFC East. When you're down 21-7 in the third quarter, that's the point where I said 'Here we go. Let's see what they're made of. What do they have in them?' They showed their resolve and heart. Very impressive.

Mike: We'll see if the Patriots can build momentum this week against Peyton Manning and the 2-2 Broncos. The theme within Gillette Stadium was "turn the page" as early as Monday, and naturally a lot of the focus is on Manning.

Peyton Manning
The Broncos have adopted Peyton Manning's offense, which is one the Patriots should be familiar with.

Tedy: The Patriots know him really well. The offense they're running in Denver, you just flip on the tape and you could play it side by side to some old Colts games and it's going to be the same. It's the same wide receiver routes, the same running game that Peyton likes to implement. To me, they feel comfortable with that. You've seen Peyton struggle a little bit early in the season because this offense has had to get used to him. It isn't that Peyton has had to get used to the system in Denver; it's vice versa. The Broncos have had to get used to him because he's running his offense, and the Patriots know it very, very well.

Mike: Bill Belichick called the Broncos' offense identical to the Colts' attack under Manning, adding that it's 95 percent different from what Denver was running last year with Tim Tebow. We're not going to see the dive option with Manning, whose physical condition after missing the 2011 season has drawn attention.

Tedy: I don't see any loss of arm strength. I think people overreact when they see the ball coming out of his hands and it's not a perfect spiral. Peyton Manning never threw a perfect spiral on every single throw, even when he was in his prime. I remember wobblers coming out when I was on the field, thinking 'Man, that's not going to get there,' but it still had the velocity and accuracy. Sometimes it just came out of his hand like that. I know Peyton has said himself that he has a little ways to go in terms of recovery, but know he's a month in after having a full training camp. Watching him versus the Raiders on Sunday, it looked like the old Manning to me. He just shredded that Raiders defense.

Mike: The Patriots have talked about defensive disguise this week against Manning. Let's get deeper into that.

Tedy: You have to match wits with the mind that a quarterback like Manning has, to be able to take control at the line of scrimmage like he does. If you give him the answers to the equation pre-snap, and you just stand there, he will switch the play to the best possible play that has the highest possible percentage of being successful against that defense. For example, if you have only six men in the box -- because Peyton has you spread out with those Colts-like formations -- he's going to run the ball. In this case, that means Willis McGahee is going to get the handoff. Once that gets established, you might see a defense bring a safety down to help that, as the Steelers did in the season opener with Troy Polamalu. When that happens, Manning switches to a pass play. With the passing game -- one-deep, a two-shell look with two safeties high -- there are certain answers to those types of defenses that Manning knows. With two-deep, try to attack the middle of the field in that Cover 2. In Cover 3, attack the outsides. It's things like that, reading your leverage pre-snap. You can't give Manning that because he'll tell his receiver what to play. If it's obvious man coverage, he'll run that tear screen that Pierre Garcon ran, that Reggie Wayne ran, and now Demaryius Thomas is running. So you just can't show him the same thing every time.

Mike: I think these types of chess matches often bring out the best in Bill Belichick from a coaching perspective. With so much focus on Manning, you want to highlight another offensive player as the key. Explain, if you will.

Tedy: I think the key, if you want to stop Peyton Manning and this Broncos offense, is shutting down McGahee (69 carries, 325 yards, 4.7 avg., 3 TDs). You have to stop the run. Whatever focus you have on coverage and disguise, those six players in the box, they have to be able to handle the running game. That's something we used to tell ourselves during the week -- 'If we don't stop the run, we are in trouble.' We didn't want to have to bring down a safety to help in the running game. So if you can't stop McGahee, the defense is going to have a long day.

Mike: So basically, the question is whether the sub defense can stop the run. Sounds like a Vince Wilfork type of game. He can be a force as a defensive tackle, and he'll be in there with Kyle Love, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in the sub. They did a pretty good job against the Bills in this area, specifically to end the first drive of the game. In terms of the Broncos' passing game, Thomas and Eric Decker are top targets.

Willis McGahee
If the Patriots can't stop Willis McGahee, the defense is going to have a long day.

Tedy: Especially Thomas, who is a big run-after-the-catch guy. That's something the Patriots have struggled with at times this year -- just straight-up tackling and missing tackles they should make. You remember the Dennis Pitta touchdown in the Ravens game. They'll have to tackle. Against the Raiders, the majority of Manning's passes flew barely 5 yards in the air, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. But the catch-and-runs were big. A big part of that is where Peyton places the ball. He's so accurate and puts it where they can catch it in stride and run away from the defenders. You also have to realize that they know they have run that tear screen to Thomas often this year. I'm sure they scout themselves. As a defense, you have to beware of possible adjustments they are going to make. What I'm saying is watch out for the fake tear screen coupled with a go route.

Mike: In terms of storylines, a notable one this week comes with former Patriots center Dan Koppen (2003-11) making his first start for the Broncos after J.D. Walton broke his ankle last week.

Tedy: "Kope" was a member of this Patriots team as recently as five weeks ago. I don't know how much change has happened with the offensive line and Tom Brady's audibles in that time. So Kope could give them information on that. As for Kope playing, you wonder how much familiarity there is between him and Manning. You know they're working on it all week, but once you break the huddle and Koppen has all of his calls, Peyton is going to change them in a snap based on what he sees from the defense. Koppen is a smart guy, and he'll get things lined up that put the protection in the right places, but it's still new. From a Patriots perspective, it will be different to see.

Mike: What type of teammate was Koppen?

Tedy: I spent a lot of time with Kope. He's a great golfer. One of his claims to fame in the locker room was beating Brady in backgammon. Those offensive linemen are the tightest group in the locker room, and that was the case with Koppen, Logan Mankins and Matt Light. They'd be pulling up a chair in the locker room and setting up the backgammon board and Brady would come over. It was competitive, and more often than not, Koppen would hand it to him. That center-quarterback relationship was great. I'm sure it's going to be a strange experience for Koppen, coming back so soon.

Dan Koppen
Returning to Foxborough as a Bronco will be a strange experience for Dan Koppen, who played for New England from 2003 to 2011.

Mike: Let's look at the Broncos' defense, under first-year coordinator Jack Del Rio, and some of the key areas for the Patriots' offense in this matchup.

Tedy: I think it's about the running game for the Patriots once again. They're going to have to get it going like they did against the Bills. The Broncos have an active, fast defense with a unique pressure package. You can take out all that speed and pass-rushing ability with a strong running game, just like the Patriots did to the Bills in totaling 247 rushing yards. You run right at them, and I see the Patriots doing the same thing against Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, two guys who are exceptional pass-rushers. I think this new balance that the Patriots have is the key to taking advantage of the Broncos' defense.

Mike: In the passing game, cornerback Champ Bailey, now in his 14th season, is still getting it done. He had some good matchups in practice against Brandon Lloyd when they were together with the Broncos, and perhaps now they could square off as one of the key individual matchups in this game.

Tedy: We'll see how the Denver coaching staff handles that. Does Bailey go on Lloyd? Does he beat up on Wes Welker? You also have cornerback Tracy Porter, and he's been making plays for them. This offense has a lot of respect for Bailey, so much so that the Patriots will game-plan away from him. So if he's on Lloyd, I wouldn't expect a lot of targets for Lloyd in the game. If there is anywhere to target in the defensive backfield, it's the safety position -- Mike Adams and Rahim Moore. I know Moore has had his struggles. Those are the types of matchups you look for on your inside receivers. That's where this defense looks a little vulnerable.

Mike: In terms of the Patriots' personnel, there are health questions in some key areas on offense. Rob Gronkowski is not 100 percent. It was notable that he was held out of practice Wednesday (hip). I'd still think he will play, but he's clearly battling through pain (he's listed on the injury report with a hip ailment). Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez (foot) is likely to remain out. But Mankins, a four-time Pro Bowl left guard, was back at practice on a limited basis and has a chance to play. The offensive line came up big without him.

Tedy: They did a great job in the running game, hammering and getting angles on the Bills. In the passing game, Brady wasn't under duress. The line came together, and once again offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia deserves mention. He's one of the best coaches in the NFL. He's one of those guys who is behind the scenes and doesn't care about credit, but he gets this offensive line right.

Mike: In special teams, we'll keep an eye on Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who missed from 42 and 49 yards against the Bills. It's been an up-and-down start to the season for Gostkowski, who also missed a game-winning 42-yard attempt against the Cardinals.

Tedy: Belichick came out strong in his support of Gostkowski. He has faith in him. This game of football is all about getting tested mentally, and Gostkowski knows this. He knows he'll be tested again and he has to put it through. Just one more thing: The Broncos ran a fake FG this past week that was unsuccessful. When teams don't have success with fakes, they are usually thrown out, but it says something that deceptive plays are in their special-teams playbook. The other special-teams units need to be alert.

Mike: One other point I heard you make on TV that caught my attention was the importance of backup Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Tedy: Yes, and when I said that, it was with practice in mind. I remember one year when we were preparing to face Peyton Manning, backup quarterback Damon Huard ended up getting a game ball because he had emulated Manning so well. What Manning does at the line of scrimmage is unique, and there are a lot of players on the Patriots' defense who have never faced him. That's why Mallett, the only other quarterback on the roster besides Brady, has an important role this week.

Mike: Great stuff, and now let's get to some predictions. It's a Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning quarterback duel for the 13th time, and I think both offenses should be able to move the ball. It's hard to envision the defenses being able to keep both of these attacks down for long stretches of time. Teams have moved the ball against the Patriots, but, as it often does when these two quarterbacks meet, I think it's going to come down to one play and who makes it. In the last meeting, it was safety James Sanders with a big interception late. I think the Patriots will find a way to make that play at home. Patriots 35, Broncos 31.

Tedy: There are so many similarities to this game and the old Patriots-Colts games. Peyton now just wears orange, and Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have turned into Dumervil and Miller. One thing has remained the same: These quarterbacks will never stop battling. Even after Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter against the undefeated Falcons, the end result was a loss by only six points This game will be close, and, in the end, someone has to make a play. And that someone will be Gostkowski. Patriots win in overtime on a Gostkowski field goal. Patriots 30, Broncos 27.