By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots return home to Foxboro to take on the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football on NBC. The game will be televised at 8:30 p.m. EST with Al Michaels and Cris Collingsworth on the call.
The Patriots (7-3) lost a last minute game to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night and are banged up on defense with over half their starters not on the field at the end of the game in Charlotte.
The Broncos (9-1) are the AFC’s top seed right now and are rolling along offensively with Peyton Manning threatening to break Tom Brady’s record of 50 touchdown passes in a season with a talented fleet of wide receivers.
So here are Five First Impressions of the Denver Broncos:
Denver Has A Strong Veteran Locker Room: One of the things we always mention as something the Patriots always look for in their free-agent signings are players who will fit in with the other players and not only fill their role but provide a good overall atmosphere for the younger players to grow.
John Elway has done that in Denver and has added even more players this spring to add to an already solid locker room. Already stocked at wide receiver the Broncos added Wes Welker this spring as another weapon for Peyton Manning to use in the Broncos arsenal.
Welker’s work ethic in New England was exemplary and he and Manning hit it off right away. Denver also brought in Shaun Phillips, long-time San Diego Chargers veteran and he leads the Broncos in sacks with nine. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was brought over from the Philadelphia Eagles and has played well.
But others such as Quentin Jammer who played little in the first few games and now has been getting more work and others who lost playing time like Mike Adams and Jacob Tamme have soldiered on and not complained about a lack of playing time, are giving the Broncos a very solid core veteran presence.
Denver has a very solid cast of characters in their locker room and it bodes well for when the big push begins in January.
Offensive Line Play Is Excellent: Somewhat lost in the shuffle in the big win over Kansas City on Sunday night was the outstanding pass protection given Peyton Manning. Playing on a somewhat gimpy ankle, Manning was expected to be hounded by the very effective pass rush of the Chiefs….It never happened.
Manning wasn’t sacked and was only hit twice and the result was another 300 yard passing game as the Broncos moved the ball very well against Kansas City, one of the better defenses in the NFL.
That protection will be key on Sunday as New England with a banged up secondary, will have to pressure Manning to have any chance at slowing down this offensive unit.
Running Game Will Need To Step It Up: With the advent of colder weather quickly approaching and possibly here by Sunday night, the passing games of most teams begin to tail off a bit. To combat this, the running games become of paramount importance. The Broncos running game needs to get some better production down the stretch.
Watching the NFL Game Rewind, Denver tried to take advantage of the Chiefs nickel and dime packages by spreading them out and running against KC’s lighter looks. Manning was lined up frequently in the shotgun and the Broncos ran a season high 36 times on Sunday night.
But the results weren’t what one would expect, netting only 2.9 yards per run on Sunday night, they will be looking to get much better production against New England this week. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball will both get plenty of work this week.
Denver Defense Used 2012 Loss To NE To Adjust: The Broncos defense which has played well allowing only 17 points to KC, San Diego to 20 and the Redskins to just 14 used a loss in Foxboro last year to change the way they play.
Last year, Tom Brady and the Patriots spread out the Broncos defense and ran the ball for over 250 yards against the lighter sub-packages. But it was the blistering tempo that eventually wore down the defense. Brady and the Patriots ran 85 plays, 54 on the ground that eventually won the day.
Now Denver believes that it is much better suited to handle that hurry-up tempo that the Patriots have employed. Much of the credit goes to LB Wesley Woodyard who has moved into the MLB position this season.
“When they do get us on the road, or in no-huddle, Woodyard is able to yell out the play for us, and that’s big for when we play the Patriots,” CB Chris Harris said. Harris told USA Today that he believes that the communication is much better this season and it will allow them to play much faster.
Last week the Denver defense took exception to all the kudos given to the KC defense prior to the game saying they felt slighted. Jack Del Rio saying the team was “very, very salty”, and expect them to carry a similar attitude into this week’s game.
In the past five games against Denver since 2008, the Patriots have averaged 35.4 points per game against the Broncos and that is something they’ll want to change.
Manning Having Career Year: At the age of 37, Manning is defying Father Time and having one of the best years of his storied career. Manning for the season is completing passes at about a 70 percent clip going 286 of 409 for 3572 yards, 34 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. That is a very good SEASON for most quarterbacks and he still has six games to go.
While his ankle is dinged up, it hasn’t been an issue as he’s been able to step into his throws and he gets the ball out extremely quickly. He’s making the most out of his very talented array of wide receivers who all seem to get the ball thrown their way as Manning has been excellent at finding the many mismatches his unit creates.
This week as he and Tom Brady face one another again, it always seems to bring out the best of both and rather have fans of one fanbase or the other bash the accomplishments of each, football fans should take the time to appreciate what you’re privileged to witness. There aren’t too many more of these games left as each of these QBs are closer to the end of their careers than to the beginning. Sit back and enjoy.