By: Steve Balestrieri
This week’s Sunday Night Football matchup features the New England Patriots (7-3) returning home to Foxboro to take on the Denver Broncos (9-1), game time is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
The broadcast will be on NBC with their crew of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the call doing the play-by-play and color analyst duties.
The Patriots lost in a controversial finish against the Carolina Panthers 24-20 as Cam Newton threw a 25 yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn with 59 seconds left. Tom Brady drove the Patriots to the Panthers 18 yard line where his throw to Rob Gronkowski as time expired was initially ruled pass interference. The officials reversed the call however and the game was over.
The Broncos beat Kansas City 27-17 last week to take over the top slot in the AFC West and as the top seed in the AFC. Peyton Manning has thrown 34 touchdowns and Denver is on pace to shatter the record for points scored in a season set by the 2007 New England Patriots.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Broncos have met 46 times in their history with Denver holding a 27-19 advantage overall, including the playoffs. New England holds a 10-9 edge at home and have won the last three meetings, the last a 31-21 win in Foxboro last season.
The New England offense is finally rounding into shape, and getting healthy. After a big output against Pittsburgh, the offense moved the ball very well against the #1 statistical defense in Carolina. Every drive was at least eight plays and if not for some mental mistakes, should have put up more points than the 20 they scored.
Getting back Shane Vereen was a big boost for Tom Brady, he led all receivers with 8 catches for 65 yards in the Carolina game. Once he gets back in game shape, he should see some more carries in the running game as well.
The running game will take on added importance down the stretch as the weather in the Northeast begins to turn closer to winter. And the Patriots running game has been doing consistently well. Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount have been doing the heavy lifting, with now Vereen getting into the mix, it should be even better.
Patriots RBs vs Broncos Front Seven- NE 126.9 YPG, 4.3 YPC Edge Patriots
The Patriots running game has been solid and consistent (9th in the NFL), this season and with the return of Shane Vereen and should prove to be even better. The running backs, Stevan Ridley, LaGarrette Blount and Vereen will be tested but if the Patriots run between the tackles and mix it up they should find success.
Denver has some big bodies in the middle, Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton and a group of fast, athletic linebackers led by Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard that can flow to the ball and are quick to blow up those long developing plays to the outside.
But they aren’t the biggest guys and if the backs, Ridley and Blount can get to the second level, they’ll find some running room against this group.
Patriots WRs vs Broncos Secondary- NE 237.1 YPG Edge Patriots
The Patriots passing game is finally getting healthy and the results are beginning to show themselves. Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski returned to health a few weeks ago and Shane Vereen, tagged to be such a target out of the backfield this season returned last week.
Vereen out with a broken wrist since Week 1, led all receivers in Carolina with 8 receptions for 65 yards, giving Tom Brady a reliable option out of the backfield that the team has been missing. In the past two games, Brady’s numbers are much better, as his unit rounds into shape: 52 of 73 for 728 yards, 5 touchdowns and 1 interception for an average yards per attempt of 9.97 and a QB rating of 120.
One interesting footnote, in two games with Vereen in the lineup the Patriots are 16-30 on third downs, in the games he was missing, those numbers are closer to 30 percent.
Denver can bring pressure off the edge, Shaun Phillips leads the team with 9 sacks but Von Miller is the guy they are looking at to create havoc in the backfield. Denver’s secondary has some injury issues, Champ Bailey has played little this season and now their best safety Rahim Moore is out with a leg injury.
Look for the Patriots to take a page out of the Dallas Cowboys playbook this week and attack Denver down the seams with Rob Gronkowski. He’s a physical mismatch against most anyone he plays against and should be able to open things up on the outside and underneath for the rest of the Patriots receivers.
New England will spread them out and hit on the short to medium passing game to keep drives alive and mix in some runs to stay balanced. This should be another good game for Brady…will it be enough?
The epidemic of injuries for the Patriots defense reached a critical tipping stage on Monday night in Carolina. At times missing six starters from the defense at the start of the season, the Pats defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. The timing couldn’t be worse with the Broncos coming to town.
The rush defense actually stepped up and did a good job against the Panthers running backs holding them to just 16 carries for 41 yards, what they had trouble with was containing Cam Newton, who was a thorn in their side making plays with his feet.
The secondary is a beat up unit with starters Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington all hurting. Facing a passing offense like Denver’s, prepare to see a lot of balls in the air….
Broncos RBs vs NE Front Seven- Denver 105.1 YPG, 3.6 YPC Edge Patriots
This is one area that the Patriots should be able to do well against on Sunday night. Expect to see the Pats in a lot of nickel and dime sub-packages. KC did the same last week and the Broncos attempted to run on them, with a season high 36 rushing attempts. But they averaged only 2.9 yards per attempt.
The Broncos have Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball as their primary running backs and they try to keep some semblance of balance out there, but in reality, as good as their passing game has been, that is very difficult to do.
Broncos WRs vs NE Secondary-Denver 350.4 YPG Edge Broncos
This is the area is where the game will be decided. Denver would get the edge here even if the Patriots were completely healthy…which they’re not. Manning has a plethora of weapons to utilize and if an opponent takes away one, he’ll turn to another. Which is why the Broncos are so balanced across the board in pass receptions.
Demaryius Thomas is the favorite receiver for Manning, last week they moved him around the formation to gain favorable matchups and expect more of that this week. When he’s covered? No problem, Manning can go to Wes Welker, Eric Decker or TE Julius Thomas. Sound daunting? It is…
So what do the Patriots do? As quickly as Manning gets rid of the ball, the edge rushers won’t get there in time, so you need a push from your interior guys, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano will have to get off their blocks quickly and attempt to get Manning off his spot.
The red-zone will be important for the defense this week, with less room to maneuver, the Broncos wide receivers will have to be re-routed and chipped hard off the line of scrimmage, similar to the way we saw the Pats mug Tony Gonzalez at the end of the game in Atlanta. The question again is….will it be enough?
Special Teams- Edge Broncos
Both kickers and punters are very evenly matched here so it will fall to the return men to set the tone for the STs. And Trindan Holliday gives the Broncos a huge lift with his kickoff returns. He’s fearless and prone to a bad decision on occasion but a threat every time he touches the ball to return it to the house. Holliday is equally dangerous returning punts but has a match in Julian Edelman.
The coverage units will be on display Sunday night, with cold, blustery conditions there will be opportunities for big plays on the field.
Patriots Player to Watch- Chris Jones
With this game against the most prolific offense in the league and with a beat-up secondary, it will be on the Patriots defense to get production from everyone this week if they are to be able to win this game.
While they won’t be able to stop Denver’s offense, they have to be able to slow it down. One way is to disguise their coverages until the very last minute, a difficult proposition since, as Devin McCourty put it on Thursday, “Peyton Manning knows the Patriots defense as well as we do”.
The other is to bring pressure on Manning, and they’ll have to be able to do it with four pass rushers. While that normally falls to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edge, this week a player to watch from a Patriots perspective is rookie DT Chris Jones.
Jones has had decent success at putting pressure on the QB, in seven games since being signed, he’s registered five sacks and this week, they’ll need a big game out of him.
One of the keys to slowing Manning down is to get him off of his spot and pressure up the middle on him (like Brady) is the best, fastest way to do that. If Jones can get to Manning up the middle, the defense will at least have a puncher’s chance against the high-powered Denver offense.
****Stay Tuned to PatsFans.com this week as we’ll be doing some live in-game chat during SNF discussing the game****