Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's the highly anticipated AFC showdown between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET).
Mike: Football fans in New England have been treated to a lot of big games over the years. From a regular-season standpoint, this one ranks right up there. These teams know each other well, almost like they've been in the same division these last few years.
Tedy: Yes, and I'm sure both teams went back and watched last season's AFC title game, to become familiar with it again. And the regular-season game last year too, and then you compare the two and ask questions like 'What changes did they make? What changes did we make? What worked the best?' That's a big part of the preparations this week.
Mike: Patriots players echoed that in the locker room over the last couple of days. Before we get into some of the X's and O's, and what some of those things are, what stands out to you from a general sense with the Broncos?
Tedy: They're playing the best out of any team in the AFC, which is reflected when I look at my rankings that take into account key statistical categories. They are head and shoulders above everyone else -- No. 1 in points per game, No. 1 in not turning the ball over, No. 1 in red-zone efficiency, No. 5 on third down. They not only gain yards, but they keep the chains moving, are very efficient and take care of the football (just four giveaways). This is by far the best unit New England will play all year, until they possibly play the Broncos again, in the playoffs.
Mike: Think the teams are headed on that type of collision course?
Tedy: Based on last week's performances, I would say yes. The Patriots' defense is getting better, especially in the secondary. I recognize the explosion we saw in the Colts-Steelers game, but this is turning out to be what we predicted in the beginning -- the two best teams in the AFC continuing to get better, with good coaching and outstanding quarterback play at the forefront.
Mike: This is the 16th time that a Peyton Manning-led team will face off against a Tom Brady-led team. There is great respect between the two. How surprised are you that Manning is still playing at such a high level?
Tedy: I'm not surprised. Careers for quarterbacks can be longer, and production can be higher -- especially for someone like Manning -- based on the way football has trended. Don't get me wrong, he's an outstanding talent, one of the best to ever play the game. You have to respect that. But the way the rules have been structured leads to an offensive game that produces high numbers for quarterbacks. You couple that with the talent that a quarterback like Manning has, and the people around him, and this is what you'd expect.
Mike: Broncos executive vice president John Elway had talked in the offseason about keeping pace with the Patriots and used the term "arms race." It's been a fun back-and-forth.
Tedy: I look at it from the Patriots' perspective and you could say the same thing. Signing cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis, it's almost as if Bill Belichick had last season's AFC Championship Game in mind. You remember seeing linebacker Jamie Collins getting beaten down the sideline by tight end Julius Thomas (9:19 remaining, fourth quarter), so you go out and get a big cornerback to put on him. When cornerback Aqib Talib left that game with injury, we saw Demaryius Thomas wear out Alfonzo Dennard. You can't let that happen again. So the Patriots brought in some reinforcements -- they are much better in the secondary now -- while Denver took it to an even higher level by signing Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders and T.J. Ward. I've never really seen a team just go all-in the way they have. Sanders was a bit of an under-the-radar signing at the time, but it's obviously been huge. He was always good in Pittsburgh. It makes me think that maybe the Patriots should have made more of an effort to sign him.
Mike: That has been a hot topic of debate around New England, with some asking if the Patriots should take a similar approach.
Tedy: It highlights Elway's philosophy of "How many more years do we have to win a championship with Manning?" They thought they had enough but then they lose badly to Seattle in the Super Bowl last season. So Elway says, 'That's not happening again.' Without knowing their salary cap situation, it's impressive to see what they've pieced together between free-agent signings and younger players already on the roster who are getting better, like cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Brandon Marshall, among others.
Mike: So let's get into how the Patriots might possibly slow the Broncos down.
Tedy: We all remember the play last year when Wes Welker collided with Talib in the middle of the field. Denver isn't the only team running pick routes -- the Patriots do too -- and there were an incredibly high number of those types of plays in the AFC title game. One thing the Patriots did last year was use linebacker Dont'a Hightower as a midfield "robber" who took care of some of those crossers (AFC title game, first quarter, 11:33). He leveled Welker on the play, but there was another crosser coming from the other side (Dennard was trailing receiver Eric Decker) and it went for a 21-yard catch-and-run. There are going to be collisions in the middle of the field no matter what, so it's definitely a game Sunday where the new emphasis on offensive and defensive holding, illegal contact and pass interference will come into play. Linebackers could be asked to re-route pass-catchers at the line of scrimmage and then get depth and break on the crossers from deep to shallow. I wouldn't expect it to be all man coverage, but in the end, the success of the Patriots will be determined by players' ability to win in man coverage.
Mike: Veteran Walt Anderson has been assigned to referee the game. His crew is among the league leaders in penalty flags thrown (third overall).
Tedy: The job of the players is to understand how the game is being officiated and then to adjust to it. There's going to be a lot of traffic and the key for the Patriots is that in situations when playing man, and you have to trail, you want to make sure you're close enough to make the quick tackle. You see how those 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-yard short passes turn into 20-plus yard big gains on catch-and-run situations. One example that came up in film study was with Welker in the Broncos' Week 5 win over the Cardinals. It's the fourth quarter (9:12 remaining), he aligns in the right slot, and runs a crossing route in which he fakes the redirect, shakes cornerback Jerraud Powers, and continues on the crosser for a 20-yard reception. Real nice; of the 20 yards, 12 were gained after the catch.
Mike: We've seen that here in New England from him, of course. I anticipate Kyle Arrington getting the assignment to match up with Welker in the slot. In pure man situations, as you mentioned, you could put Revis on Demaryius Thomas and Browner on Julius Thomas, and that probably leaves you with Dennard on Sanders. We'll see if that's how it unfolds, but it seems safe to say that most of this game will be played in either the nickel or dime defense. We'll have to see if they can stop the run with the lighter box, which has been a problem for them.
Tedy: The Patriots are familiar with this offensive system and I think they'll dare them to run the ball with six in the box. There's no need to have seven unless it's short-yardage or goal-line and the Broncos compress the formation. I look at it this way -- every run to Ronnie Hillman, whom you might be able to strip as he's had some ball-security issues in the past, is one less throw you have to contend with from Manning. They have a lot of weapons and I'm trying to recall another offense as dangerous as this one. You could say the 2007 Patriots, but this Denver offense broke that scoring record last year and with the addition of Sanders they are even better this year.
Mike: There are essentially two ways to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game -- by getting to Manning or playing physical at the line of scrimmage with the receivers.
Tedy: You always have to be careful how much pressure you send on Manning. He usually has the answer for most things. There were a few occasions when the Patriots sent five in the AFC Championship Game. Last week, we saw defensive coordinator Matt Patricia get creative with some different fronts, with linebackers in the A gaps, safeties coming off the edge and defensive linemen dropping into coverage. Let's see if there is some more creativity this week. Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung will be huge players in this game. Safety movement is always huge going against Manning, but the key is that they still need to make sure they end up in the right spot because you never want to get out of position against Manning. There's too much talent on that side of the ball. And something we've gone over quite a bit in recent years: The defense must be careful about declaring its intentions before the snap, or reading too much into what is said with the "Omaha!" type calls, as Peyton can do that to a defense.
Mike: Anything stand out with Denver's offensive line?
Tedy: It's almost like it's an irrelevant topic at times because of how quickly Manning releases the ball. Brady is similar and I think that's why the Patriots' offense is starting to look better -- Tom's ability to get rid of the ball on time. The quarterbacks have similar styles.
Mike: That's a nice segue into the other side of this matchup -- Patriots offense vs. Broncos defense.
Tedy: This is a Denver defense that gave up just 16 points in the AFC Championship Game last year (13 in the fourth quarter after building a 23-3 lead) and they are leaps and bounds better this year. They didn't have cornerback Harris last year in the game. No Talib. No Ward. No Ware and no Von Miller. And after saying all that, the biggest problem for the Patriots may be a piece of meat in the middle -- Pot Roast, aka Terrance Knighton. He dominated the Patriots' offensive line. On a big fourth-down play, he beat left guard Logan Mankins for a sack when Mankins missed on his initial punch. The thing about Knighton is that as big as he is (6-foot-3, 331 pounds), he still has quickness. Ryan Wendell (6-2, 300) was at center in that game for the Patriots and he struggled there. He's at guard now, so we'll see if rookie Bryan Stork (6-4, 310) can do a better job. This is a different challenge for Stork, a big step up from last Sunday when he was facing the Bears' Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton at times.
Mike: It's probably not overstating to say that Knighton's performance probably sparked the change on the Patriots' interior offensive line this year -- with Stork drafted in the fourth round out of Florida State, Mankins traded to Tampa Bay, and Wendell initially moved out of the starting lineup before being reinserted at right guard.
Tedy: Knighton was a one-man wrecking crew in that AFC title game. A few plays stood out. In the first quarter (8:47), he used a swim move on Wendell, gained penetration in the backfield and then knocked back pulling tackle Marcus Cannon to cause enough disruption to help stop the running play for a 1-yard gain. In the second quarter (4:57), he got his hands on Wendell and controlled him into the backfield, shed him and made the tackle on running back LeGarrette Blount for no gain. You watch that and ask the question, "Can Bryan Stork do better?" In the third quarter (3:20), Knighton once again gets penetration in the backfield and throws Wendell aside to make the play, dropping Stevan Ridley for a loss of one yard.
Mike: The Broncos' defense has had one significant injury this year, to linebacker Danny Trevathan. Otherwise, it's pretty much been intact.
Tedy: I liked them better with Trevathan at linebacker -- he's a great young player who has done good things for them and gotten better since being drafted in the 2012 sixth round out of Kentucky. But his replacement, Marshall, has stepped in and done a nice job. That's a testament to him and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and the coaching staff. Their cornerbacks are solid, with Harris, who is just a baller and Talib, who is having a great year. They have Bradley Roby, their first-round pick out of Ohio State, come in to play the slot. We remember seeing Talib on tight end Jimmy Graham last year, but I don't think they put him on Rob Gronkowski on Sunday (probably more likely to be Brandon LaFell). Graham is a big glorified receiver, while Gronkowski is a pure tight end who also does receiver-type things. That's a matchup this defense has to worry about -- Gronkowski. It will be interesting to see how they defend him. Safety Ward is a tough player, but he can't match up against Gronkowski.
Mike: Fair to say the Patriots will have to win through the air? Or think they can get the ground game going better than they did in the AFC title game?
Tedy: I'm anticipating the Broncos' winning at the point of attack, in the middle of the line of scrimmage. So it's going to be hard for the Patriots to do what they did against the Bears, establishing play-action and having time to throw. Because of that, one thing that will be important is Brady using his "athletic ability" to stay alive in the pocket in passing situations. No one is saying Brady is a world-class athlete, but he's athletic enough to maneuver in the pocket and re-establish a throwing platform when there is pressure from the middle of the pocket and also outside with Miller and Ware. If the Patriots can't get the running game going, it could lead them to spread things out and go to the quick passing game. That's the beautiful thing about this offense -- it's not an offense where they say "This is what we run and we're doing it regardless of what the defense puts out there." They will adjust it each week. It's a game-plan offense where they watch film and figure out the best way to attack the opposition's weakness. I think Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman could be primed to have big games.
Mike: On Brady, let's get into what re-establishing a throwing platform really means.
Tedy: There are some great examples to point out, like the third quarter (6:38) of the AFC title game when he slides to his right to extend the play and then hits receiver Austin Collie for a first down. And we've seen him do that a few times in recent weeks as well, specifically on Danny Amendola's 19-yard touchdown catch against the Jets. The other thing with Brady is that he missed some throws in the AFC title game -- the overthrow to Edelman in the first quarter (3:06), missing Collie down the right sideline at the end of the second quarter (0:16) and then Aaron Dobson on a midfield shot (third quarter, 4:59) that didn't connect. The true test of trust between a quarterback and his receivers is putting the ball in places where there is a slight chance that it may be intercepted, but you have confidence that your receiver will make the play. Brady obviously has that with Gronkowski and Edelman. It seems to be evolving with LaFell. This game will tell us more about that.
Mike: The weather projects to be a possible factor, cold and maybe some precipitation. I'm also interested to see if the game is close, and comes down to a field goal, how first-year Broncos kicker Brandon McManus responds. It should be a memorable night, on and off the field, as you'll be in attendance as part of the team honoring 17 three-time Super Bowl championship players.
Tedy: I'm excited to see the guys. Richard Seymour and Roman Phifer, I haven't seen them in a long time. Stephen Neal is making the trip from California. I keep in touch with most of them and that's a bond we all share. Those were some of the best years of our careers and you win three championships in four years, it's special. I vividly remember all the contributions made by every single player -- from the Pro Bowler to the scout-team player who helped prepare us. This is going to be an exciting night.
Mike: Let's go to predictions. I picked the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last year and came away questioning myself afterward for failing to project some of the team's struggles at the line of scrimmage. Dynamic pass-rushers have hurt the Patriots this season on the edge, and defensively, the Patriots' struggles stopping the run in sub are a concern. It should be a great game and I wonder if the Broncos' reliance on a young kicker might haunt them in the end, but I'll go with the club that tight end Rob Gronkowski called the best team in the NFL right now and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork called the perfect team. Broncos 30, Patriots 27.
Tedy: Big plays need to be made by the defense. They will have to take the ball away and they will. Revis and Browner show their worth and come up big. Patriots 34, Broncos 31.