Inside the matchup: Broncos vs Patriots

Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady (left) and Peyton Manning (right) will face each other for the 14th time Sunday.

Sunday marks the 14th meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning including the playoffs. Brady is 9-4 in the previous 13, with his nine wins tied for the most by one quarterback against another since 1993.

Despite Brady’s historical success against Manning, the Broncos offense has a couple key edges on paper against the Patriots defense. Though Brady’s offense sputtered out of the gate, improvement since Rob Gronkowski's return has them looking closer to the New England offense of old.

Here’s a look at four key matchups that will decide Sunday’s showdown.

Patriots pass rush vs Peyton

The Chiefs didn’t sack Manning last week, and if the Chiefs couldn’t get to Manning, the Patriots may be in real trouble.

New England’s defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks an average of 3.85 seconds before passing, the second-highest average in the league. Manning throws his average pass a full second faster (2.83). Even Manning’s slowest game of the season (Week 7 vs Colts) was two-thirds of a second faster than the Patriots defense’s average.

For some quarterbacks in some systems, getting the ball out quickly isn’t a point of emphasis. Those quarterbacks are not Manning, who has 21 touchdowns and one interception when passing two seconds or less after the snap (13-5 when holding for more than two seconds). Manning’s 158 such attempts lead the league, and no other quarterback has more than 11 touchdowns on quick throws.

Wes Welker vs Patriots slot cornerbacks

If the Patriots pass rush can’t get to Manning, it will be a long day. The Patriots defense has allowed an 84.8 Total QBR when they don’t pressure the quarterback, 25th in the league.

The biggest of these matchups is in the slot.

The Patriots defense has allowed nine touchdowns to slot receivers with only two interceptions on passes targeting slot receivers. No team has a worse TD-Int differential allowed on slot targets than New England.

Take a wild guess which player leads the league in slot targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Only six players have more targets than Wes Welker has catches (47) from the slot, 10 more than any other wide receiver.

Three New England cornerbacks have at least 90 snaps in the slot this year, Kyle Arrington (233), rookie Logan Ryan (109) and Marquice Cole (90). None of them inspire confidence against the league’s best slot receiver.

Broncos linebackers/safeties vs Rob Gronkowski

Adjusting to life without Welker is one thing, but losing both Welker and Gronkowski for the first six games would be tough on any quarterback.

Patriots Offense by Week This Season

Since Gronkowski returned, the Patriots have looked a little more like the efficient unit Brady is accustomed to running.

Denver’s pass defense hasn’t been tested against tight ends much this season, but the two top receiving yards totals against the Broncos this year were by Antonio Gates and Jordan Reed, who also has the most catches in a game (eight) against the Broncos this year.

Broncos ball carriers vs fumble-itis

In Denver’s 39-33 Week 7 loss in Indianapolis, two key fumbles decided the game. Trindon Holliday fumbled a punt in the first quarter on his own 14-yard line. The Colts recovered and scored on the next play. A fourth-quarter Ronnie Hillman fumble on the goal line cost Denver seven more points, a combined 14-point swing in what was ultimately a 6-point game.

These aren’t isolated incidents for the Broncos. Denver running backs have fumbled five times this season- only the Cardinals (six) have fumbled more. More troubling for Denver is Holliday- special teams fumbles can swing a game quickly, and no one has more special teams fumbles than Holliday (three).