In one of the absolute classic rivalries of this generation, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off for the 13th time as two of the AFC’s top playoff contenders meet Sunday afternoon in a rematch of last January’s division round playoff game. here is a look at some of the keys to the game for each team.

 

Patriots running game versus Broncos run defense

Denver ranks 9th in the NFL at 87.5 rushing yards allowed per game and is 7th at 3.4 yards per carry. The Pats are 8th (144.0 ypg) and 12th (ypc) running the ball, but more importantly the offensive line seems to have really figured out what they need to do to open up lanes – and the running backs are running downhill and hitting those holes decisively. The Pats have long been a team that is willing to take whatever it is that the opponent is willing to give them. If the Broncos go with a nickel defense they’ll run the ball like they did at Buffalo; if they stay in their base defense then one of the receivers is going to be open.

 

Patriots passing game versus Broncos pass defense

The Pats are averaging 8.0 yards per pass attempt (6th) and 294 passing yards per game (also 6th); Denver is allowing 6.8 ypa (11th) and 221 ypg (13th). it’s one thing to shut down the Oakland Raiders at home; it’s another thing to shut down the Patriots in Foxboro. I keep reading reports from Denver about how Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter will shut down the Pats passing game, and Derek Wolfe, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller will will overpower the Pats offensive line and give Tom Brady no time to throw. After rewatching the Broncos game in Denver against Houston, I’m just not buying it. The Denver pass rush rarely got to Matt Schaub, as he threw for 284 yards and 9.5 yards per attempt. If Schaub can do that with his receivers on the road then I have to think that the Pats can do the same – or more – at home. It’s also worth noting that the Broncos have only come away with two interceptions in the 140 pass attempts they have faced this year.

 

Broncos running game versus Patriots run defense

Willis McGahee has been slowed down by a rib injury but he will play Sunday. In the two games against the Pats last year he averaged 73 yards and has rushed for over 110 yards against both Atlanta and Oakland this year. The Pats run defense is allowing 3.4 yards per carry (8th) and 85.3 yards per game (7th). I don’t think McGahee will be a critical part of Sunday’s game; I think Denver would prefer to test the Pats secondary than this solid run defense.

 

Broncos passing game versus Patriots pass defense

This of course is the area of greatest concern for the Pats. On one side of the ball is Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history; on the other side of the ball is a defense that has not generated much of a pass rush and is giving up 282 passing yards per game (25th). Manning, like Tom Brady, is a pure pocket passer. As we have seen over the years the best way to get Brady off his game is by collapsing the pocket with pressure up the middle; the same is true when facing Manning. Now think back to when Dan Koppen was the center with the Pats: his biggest problem was when he had to face big 3-4 nose tackles who overpowered him. The Pats may now be using a 4-3 rather than a 3-4, but they still have the prototype 3-4 NT: Vince Wilfork. I expect Wilfork to wreak havoc in the middle of the line, tossing Koppen aside and disrupting Manning from being able to get his feet set and off his spot, throwing off his back foot; that in turn will cause passes to be off their mark and perhaps result in an interception or two.

 

Special Teams

Matt Prater is a perfect 7-7 on field goals, but doesn’t get the benefit of mile high air Sunday. … Zoltan Mesko has pinned opponents inside the twenty ten times with his punts, which is fourth best in the NFL.

 

Missed Opportunities: much is made of red zone opportunities, but what about drives that start with good field position? The Patriots eleven drives (22.4%) on their opponent’s side of the field; both rank as best in the NFL. However the Pats have only scored 44 points on those drives (5 TD, 3 FG, 2 no scores). The 4.0 points per drive starting in opponent’s territory places them 15th in the NFL; for an offense this potent that needs to improve. While it’s an improvement over last year (2.9 point per drive), it still needs to get better.

 

Bend and Break? The Bills scored four touchdowns of 20 yards or more last week, and the Pats have now given up seven touchdowns of that length already this year, after allowing just five touchdowns of 20 or more yards last year. Of the points scored against the Pats this year, a league-high 59.8% of them have come from outside the red zone; last year the Pats led the NFL with a league-low 13.7% of their points allowed coming from beyond the twenty. that’s an ominous figure for a defensive scheme that is built to avoid giving up the big play at the expense of making a big defensive play.

 

Second Half Surge: The Patriots lead the league in average amount of points scored in the second half with 20.0; the Broncos are right behind them in second with 19.8.

 

Trends and other odds and ends

- The Broncos are 3-7 in their last ten games played in October; the Pats are 9-1 in their last ten. Going further back the Pats are 18-1 at home in the month of October and are 8-1 in their last nine games against the AFC West.

- Even after the two losses last year the Broncos are still 17-6 in their last 23 games against the Patriots. On the other hand the Pats are 17-4 in their last 21 home games and 12-3 overall in their last 15 games. A bit of a scheduling oddity may partially explain that discrepancy: 15 of the last 24 meetings have taken place in Denver, including 8 of the last 12 games between the two.

- Of the 91 pass receptions allowed by the Pats defense this year, opposing pass catchers have gained yards after the catch 80 times. That 87.9% figure of YAC is worst in the NFL.

 

Prediction: If all you do is look at stats, then Denver wins this game. Go beyond that and see where the two teams are right now and I see a Pats offensive line that is clicking in both the running and passing game, and a defensive front line that should cause problems for Peyton Manning. The Broncos will keep in interesting with a few big offensive plays but the Pats will come up with key turnovers to win 30-24.

 

 

 

 

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October 6, 1969:
The Beatles released the single “Something” on the A side, with “Come Together” on the B side of their latest 45. It was the first time they had ever released a George Harrison song on the A side of a single.

 

 

 

 

 

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