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Ten things you have to know about Broncos-Patriots

11.23.13 at 1:40 pm ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Broncos game:

Our three favorite matchups on the evening:

1. Quarterback Tom Brady against the Denver secondary: The Broncos secondary bears the bulk of responsibility for Denver’€™s woeful pass defense. The Broncos are allowing an average of 279.1 passing yards per game, 28th in the league. Three different quarterbacks have thrown for more than 300 yards against the Broncos this season, including Tony Romo‘€™s 506 yards in an October loss to the Broncos. (Those numbers are partially skewed because of injuries, and also a reflection of the fact that teams are throwing against them in an attempt to play catch-up.) Don’€™t expect the Patriots to take too many deep shots downfield — New England is likely more interested in playing a ball control offense to try and keep Manning off the field for as long as possible. In addition, at least from a statistical perspective it makes more sense to go for short and underneath stuff against Denver — the Broncos have yielded 46 pass plays of 20 or more yards with 46, the highest total in the league. At the same time, they’€™ve only allowed four pass plays of 40 yards or more, tied for fourth in the league with a handful of teams, including the Patriots. With Von Miller rounding back into form for Denver and the Broncos struggles when it comes to short and intermediate routes, it wouldn’€™t be a surprise to see Brady and the Patriots place a priority on getting the ball out as fast as possible with three-step drops, quick outs and maybe a screen here or there to negate the Denver pass rush.

2. The Patriots secondary against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning: It’€™s truly all-hands on deck for the New England secondary, which is suffering from bumps and bruises of varying severity at this time of the season. With the most prolific passing game in the league coming to town, it’€™s the worst possible time to be suffering from injuries. There’€™s some question as to just how healthy Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory really are, but just about all of them were at practice this week, and (to my knowledge) three of them spoke with the media, which usually means positive things when it comes to their availability for the game.

3. Cornerback Aqib Talib against wide receiver Demaryius Thomas: It’€™s debatable just how healthy Talib is — he said he’€™s OK this week, but it was interesting that he wasn’€™t able to finish the game against the Panthers because of his hip. Providing he’€™s ready to roll, he should see a lot of Thomas, who is a more suitable matchup for him — Talib is at his best when he’€™s going against taller, faster guys, and the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Thomas certainly falls into that camp. Talib nailed it this week when he called Thomas a complete receiver who can find the end zone a number of ways — the Georgia Tech product has big-play capability (his 15.2 yards per catch is best on the team), but is also has terrific catch-and-run capabilities (his 509 yards after the catch is best in the league). ‘€œHe finds the end zone all kinds of ways — screens, deep balls, slants,’€ Talib said of Thomas, who has 60 catches on 93 targets for 914 yards and nine touchdowns. ‘€œAnyway you can name, he will have found the end zone that kind of way.’€

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: There’€™s a question as to whether or not he’€™s going to be able to play — he’€™s been bothered by a knee injury — but if he’€™s good to go, ‘€œOrange’€ Julius Thomas is the pick. After catching one pass in his two years with the Broncos prior to 2013, the Portland State product has suddenly become one of Manning’€™s go-to guys with 45 catches on 62 targets for 590 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thomas doesn’€™t have the star power of Welker, Decker or Demaryius Thomas, but he’€™s a steady, consistent blocker and dependable pass catcher who has developed into a key part of the Denver offense.

5. By the numbers: The Patriots did not force a takeaway last Monday against the Panthers, the first time in 36 straight games they didn’€™t come up with a takeaway. (It was the longest active streak in the league.) According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, the Patriots haven’€™t gone back-to-back without a takeaway since a three-game stretch in 2005. That, combined with the fact that the Broncos lead the league with 13 fumbles, could mean good things for New England when it comes to forcing a turnover on Sunday.

6. Quote from a scout about this Sunday’€™s matchup: ‘€œWes Welker is being used in a similar fashion as he was in New England. But biggest difference in Denver and the last couple of years in New England is that they have better outside wide receivers in Denver, and they can also create more space for Welker by their presence and ability to be vertical threats. You have to pay more attention to those guys, as opposed to the outside guys in New England the last few years.’€ — For more on the scout’€™s breakdown, check out our story here.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about’€¦.. it’€™s simple, really: If the Broncos seize control early in this one, they will be incredibly difficult to defend. More than any team since the 2007 Patriots, this Denver offense can be very scary if it gets going early. It might not have the same shock and awe attitude that the 2007 Patriots possessed, but they can put up points just as quickly as that team did. Currently, the Broncos are on pace to finish the season with 637 points, which would break the record of 589 set by the New England team six years ago. (The 27 points they scored last week marked a season-low for Denver, which has topped the 40-point mark five times in the first 10 games.) Manning is on pace for 54 touchdown passes (which would shatter Brady’€™s mark of 50 he set in 2007), and the Broncos have five players with 37 receptions or more. Scary stuff.

8. Broncos fans should be worried about’€¦. New England stringing together extended drives that allow them to control the tone and tempo of the game and keep Manning off the field. The Patriots might not try to run all the time — some of those extended drives could mean short passes, screens and smallish intermediate stuff — but if the Patriots are able to play the game on their own terms, it will mean trouble for Denver. While New England will utilize all its offensive options, it’€™ll be interesting to see how Stevan Ridley operates against the Broncos. Last season, Denver was one of the best teams in the league at defending the run, and he still managed to run for 151 yards on 28 carries. Granted, the personnel is different on both sides heading into this one, but if he can come close to that same level of performance this week, it will go a long way toward controlling the clock and making sure New England comes away with a win.

9. One more thing: Much has been made — and rightfully so — when it comes to the quarterbacking play being the deciding factor in this game. But this contest will also feature two of the best return men in the league in Trindon Holliday and Julian Edelman. The 5-foot-5 Holliday — the shortest man in the league — has taken one kick and one punt return all the way back this year. That was on the heels of an electrifying performance in last year’€™s divisional playoffs against the Ravens where he became the first guy to return a punt for a touchdown and a kick for a touchdown in the same postseason game. This year, Holliday is third in the league in kick return average at 31.9 yards per return (trailing only Minnesota’€™s Cordarrelle Patterson at 34.4 and Dallas’€™ Dwayne Harris at 32.3). As for Edelman, he has been at his consistent best all season while working as New England’€™s punt returner, averaging 11.5 yards per return (seventh in the league). Over the course of his career, the 5-foot-10 Edelman’€™s 12.7 yards per return average is third-best in the history of the game for anyone who has at least 75 returns. In a game that’€™s expected to be close, one of these specialists could end up playing a big role in the game.

10. Prediction:

 

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