Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four Point Stance: Broncos at Patriots


While Peyton Manning was able to fight through an ankle injury and dismantle an undefeated Kansas City Chiefs team with a top-notch defense last week, his task for this Sunday is much more ominous — beating Tom Brady for the first time in four years, in Foxborough.

Much of the attention this week has been on the rivalry between the two future Hall of Famers, and for good reason. The two have put together some of the most exciting shootouts in the league the past decade or so, and the first of perhaps two showdowns this season looks primed to be right on par with those preceding it.

Both signal-callers have their teams atop their respective divisions, though each has gone about it in slightly different ways. Manning has continued to carry the load for his offense, averaging 41 attempts per game and tallying 34 touchdowns through 10 games.

Brady, though averaging close to the same attempts, has struggled with his accuracy with a depleted receiving corps and has relied on the ground game for scores. He's amassed fewer than half of the team's touchdowns as his counterpart (14) and has a far less impressive quarterback rating.

Both offenses have leaned on their defensive efforts for opportunities, which have combined to force 36 takeaways this season. New England failed to force any turnovers last week in their loss to Carolina, which they'll need to reverse if they're going to slow Denver's potent system.

When the Patriots have the ball:
Brady's third-down efficiency looked much better last week with the return of Shane Vereen, who will likely take on a bigger role in the offense as he gets his legs back under him after being out for most of the year. Winning battles up front for the running game will still be crucial for New England, which may prove difficulty if Stevan Ridley continues to struggle with ball security against the league's fourth-ranked rush defense. Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins was a viable deep-threat option in the team's loss to the Panthers, though the focus may shift to whichever assignment cornerback Champ Bailey pulls if the banged up veteran gets the start.

When the Broncos have the ball:
Manning's two go-two options (Wes Welker, Julius Thomas) suffered fairly significant injuries last week, so their efficiency early on will likely dictate how Manning chooses to pick apart an ailing Patriots secondary. Aqib Talib's hip injury kept him out for some snaps in last week's loss, so don't be surprised if Denver tests his durability throughout the game. Expect Denver's ground game to continue to put pressure on the defensive line up the middle, though the squad has really exceeded expectations since the loss of veteran Vince Wilfork. The difference-maker here may be receiver Eric Decker, whose been underutilized on the outside with the successes of both Julius and Demaryius Thomas and will likely see a lot of single coverage.

The red zone. Denver touts the league's best red-zone efficiency at close to 80 percent, while New England is still struggling to pull itself out of the cellar at 51 percent. The same goes for the Pats' defense inside the 20, which has been terrible the last three games and has given up touchdowns on 70 percent of its opportunities. Denver's defense hasn't been great either and has struggled on the road (64 percent), so whoever can make a stop or two deep in their own zone will have the upper hand.

New England has won four of its last five against Denver, which includes a decisive win in the 2011 playoffs to advance to Conference Championship and eventually the Super Bowl. In the Brady-Manning saga, New England has won five of the last eight, with the average of those games being decided by less than five points. The Pats' last win against the Broncos came in October of last year, where Brady threw for one touchdown and ran for another in an eventual 31-21 victory at home.

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