Broncos vs. Patriots preview

The Denver Broncos visit the New England Patriots in the regular season for the third straight year. As usual, it’s one of the most highly anticipated games on the NFL schedule.

Why three regular-season matchups in a row in New England? It’s simply a result of the league’s rotating scheduling format.

And that rotation would call for the teams to meet again next year should they finish in the same spot in the division standings this season, a game that would be played in Denver.

Sunday’s game will mark the 16th time that quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off against each other, with Brady holding a 10-5 edge. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, this marks the first matchup in NFL history among opposing starting quarterbacks who had at least 150 career regular-season wins entering the game.

Elias also reports the 890 combined career passing touchdowns for Manning (513) and Brady (377) are the most combined career passing touchdowns for opposing starting quarterbacks in NFL history. The previous record was 818, held by Manning and Brady last season.

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the matchup.

Reiss: Jeff, welcome back to town. What are the most significant differences you see in the Broncos from the team the Patriots saw in last year’s AFC Championship Game?

Legwold: The biggest difference -- and it’s major -- will be in the team’s defense. Three players who started in the AFC Championship Game this past Jan. 19 will likely be in the starting lineup again this time around. The total would have been four had linebacker Danny Trevathan not reinjured his leg against the Arizona Cardinals, but it has been an extreme makeover. And it’s one where I think you can see John Elway’s experience as a quarterback coming through as a personnel executive. Elway didn’t want to put Manning in a situation in which "he feels like he has to do everything," and after a season when the Broncos scored more points than any team in league history, yet still didn’t win the Super Bowl, Elway went about the business of making the Broncos far more well-rounded, with more team speed across the board on both sides of the ball. Defensively, however, Von Miller’s return and DeMarcus Ware’s addition in free agency gives the Broncos two elite edge players on a defense that can play with far more versatility than it did in either meeting against the Patriots last season.

For all of the discussion about Tom Brady’s decline early in the season, what have you seen in his play and have the Patriots simply done a better job protecting him in the past four games?

Reiss: It was difficult to evaluate Brady in the first four weeks of the season because he was under so much duress. So I’d say the main difference since that time has been better protection, which has given the offense a chance to find a bit of an identity; they are an attack that leans toward multiple tight ends and two-back groupings. And make no mistake, the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski has been a big part of it, too. He was still being eased into the mix in the first four games of the season and he has since hit top form. What a difference that has made. Brady’s arm strength and mental acumen have not wavered. I think it's most accurate to say that that the parts around him are playing better.

Aqib Talib was well liked among teammates in New England. How would you describe how he’s fit in with the Broncos and what he has brought to the team?

Legwold: Again, Elway, the former quarterback, went on the hunt as a personnel executive for the type of cornerback he didn’t like to face when he played. And that is Talib, a physical, fearless player with length, good speed and instincts in coverage. That was their hope for Talib and that’s what he has brought. He has been a willing tackler in the run game and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has used him all over the formation. The Broncos had questions about Talib’s ability to stay healthy, given the way he plays and that he had never played 16 games in a season, but it has been so far, so good as Talib hasn’t even missed any practice time so far. He has allowed the Broncos to play three cornerbacks -- Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and rookie Bradley Roby -- in the nickel and still defend the run game against the more open formations the Broncos have seen. That has always been a sticking point in recent years, especially against the Patriots at times. The Broncos play perhaps more man coverage than any team in the league right now, so Talib gets isolated in tough matchups at times and has given up some catches in those don’t-touch-the-receiver times, but he has played well and the Broncos like his ability to compete every play. Overall, Talib has fit well in the locker room and seems to like the same kind of postseason aspirations in Denver that were prevalent in the Patriots’ locker room as well. He has said all the right things so far this week, but his teammates say he’d like to make a "remember when" play Sunday.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has usually had a wrinkle for the Broncos to digest in recent meetings, especially for the Broncos' defense, everything from the up-tempo look in 2012 to Aaron Hernandez lined up at running back in 2011. How do you think Belchick and Josh McDaniels will attack this year’s version of the Broncos' defense?

Reiss: When the Patriots have been at their best this season, they’ve established a threat of the running game to set-up play-action opportunities. So I’d start there, while also remembering how much they struggled in that area in the AFC Championship Game. They couldn’t block Terrance Knighton consistently on the interior, so when I think of their potential game plan, there will surely be wrinkles, but I think it’s more about basics and fundamentals and securing the line of scrimmage better than they did the last time these two teams met. The major wrinkles will probably come more on the defensive side.

The defection of Wes Welker is still a sore subject for some, in part because the projected replacement -- Danny Amendola -- hasn’t filled the role. Julian Edelman has, but Welker was a fan favorite here. How has Welker looked this season, and where does he fit into the overall offense?

Legwold: Certainly it hasn’t been the year Welker had hoped it would be thus far, beginning with a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs -- it was later reduced to two games when the new drug policy was approved by the league and the NFL Players Association -- to open the season. He also suffered a concussion in the preseason against the Houston Texans, and it was his third concussion since November. So in the early going, Welker has spent a lot of time answering questions about his suspension and whether he’s worried about his health because of the concussions. Toss in the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas in the offense, and Welker hasn’t seen the ball all that much with 19 catches, on 24 targets, in his five games. He has six catches in the past three games combined. That said, Manning continues to go to him in some key third-down situations, including against the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and against the San Diego Chargers last week. But he has been a specialist of sorts in Denver this season. Each of the Broncos' receivers has had a marquee game this season as Manning continues to work the ball all over the formation, and Welker is due for his. But to this point he’s a distant fourth in targets and has just eight more catches than running back Ronnie Hillman, who has started just three games.

In the end, it’s hard to get away from the Brady-Manning storyline. They are, and will always be, the biggest names on the marquee in this matchup. But beyond the future Hall of Famers, what’s the one thing the Patriots must do to win this game?

Reiss: Establish control of the line of scrimmage and good things will happen for the Patriots. It’s so basic, I know, but that’s really been the top story of the Patriots’ season to me. They couldn’t get where they wanted to go until they figured out things along the offensive line and they seem to have done that, but now comes a stiff test against Knighton and dynamic pass rushers Miller and Ware. On defense, they haven’t been stout against the run while playing sub defense, and they’ll need to create more resistance than they did last year.