The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots aren't in the same division, it just seems as if they are. Since the start of the 2008 season, they have met eight times, twice in the postseason. Sunday night's prime-time affair will be the ninth time the teams have played in that eight-year span, and the Patriots have a 6-2 edge.
"Oh yeah. I've never beat them," cornerback Chris Harris Jr said. "We beat them when I was hurt (in the AFC Championship Game following the 2013 season), so I don't even count that game as a win for me. I'm going to do whatever I can to come out and put on my best game."
There won't be the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady matchup, as Brock Osweiler will make his second career start while Manning sits with shoulder, rib and foot injuries. The Patriots are 10-0 with the opportunity for a second undefeated regular season with Bill Belichick as coach.
The Broncos are 8-2, trying to keep themselves in the mix for home-field advantage in the AFC.
ESPN NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.
Legwold: Mike, Tom Brady is certainly in the MVP conversation and obviously good health is always a requirement, but what do you think are the most important adjustments he has made, or the team has made, to keep his play at an elite level?
Reiss: Jeff, Brady has made more plays with his feet in the past two seasons, which has been impressive to see from a now 38-year-old quarterback. It's not always running -- which he has done with more success as well -- but also escaping the pocket to keep plays alive a bit longer and allowing his pass-catchers a little more time to uncover. The other thing we're seeing is the ball getting out of his hands quicker. Entering Week 11 action, no one was getting it out quicker (an average of 2.13 seconds), according to ESPN Stats & Information. That has helped cover up some of the challenges the team has had along the offensive line with injuries.
So, the Broncos are going with Osweiler at quarterback. Why are the Broncos better off with him at this point?
Legwold: Mike, Manning isn't healthy. He has been treated for right shoulder, left foot and rib injuries in recent weeks, and things weren't going to get any better if he kept trying to play. The foot injury is the biggest concern, because he has a partially torn plantar fascia and went to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday to see specialist Dr. Robert Anderson. Manning's last outing was the worst of his career, and the Broncos and Manning are now concentrating on trying to get him healthy, because his injuries had compromised his ability to run the offense and even protect himself at times. That has put Osweiler in the lineup, and the Broncos rushed for a season-best 170 yards this past weekend and Osweiler threw two touchdown passes. A healthy Osweiler was simply a better option than a significantly injured Manning.
Are these Patriots built to win now? Do they have the depth to overcome their current bout of injuries?
Reiss: Yes and yes. One thing Belichick has said over the years is that one of the foundations of his best teams has been physical and mental toughness, and the ability to come through in the clutch. This team has checked off most of the boxes in those areas to this point, and it obviously starts with Brady. When he plays like this, anything is possible for the team. Obviously it hasn't always been perfect, and the depth is a concern in some areas (e.g. cornerback), but when I look around the NFL, I don't see a complete team that has all the answers and isn't dealing with key injuries. So the idea is to build momentum and put yourself in position to be at your best down the stretch, and they have done that at this point.
If you had to look into your crystal ball, is Manning playing in Denver in 2016? How much does he have left?
Legwold: Mike, that is the 12,000-pound elephant in all of the rooms for the Broncos. Manning has a year left on his deal after this season. But it comes down to his health and his ability to move past the injuries he has now. He has always said he would play as long as he enjoyed it and as long as he felt like he was contributing to his team's ability to win. In the Broncos' loss to the Chiefs this month, Manning looked as if he wasn't doing either -- he was 5-of-20 passing for 35 yards with four interceptions when he was taken out of the game. At the moment his chief concern is getting healthy, and he hasn't considered what 2016 will bring. But I don't think he plays anywhere else if he plays beyond this season, and he won't play beyond this season if he doesn't believe he can get healthy enough to help his team win.
Looking specifically at one of the biggest matchups for the Broncos, do you think defenses treat tight end Rob Gronkowski as the No. 1 problem in New England's passing game? And how have opposing coordinators, if any, had success dealing with him?
Reiss: It has been a mix, Jeff. There has been plenty of double coverage, which has created opportunities for others (e.g. Dion Lewis' 16-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Miami on Oct. 29). Other times, opponents haven't covered him at all (e.g. season-opener against Pittsburgh on a 16-yard catch-and-run TD pass up the right sideline). And there has also been single coverage, and as Washington coach Jay Gruden said, it's sort of like defending LeBron James or Steph Curry; you know they're going to get some points, you just try to limit the damage. Whether it's a linebacker or defensive back, it's usually a tall task for a defense, because Gronkowski is too fast for many linebackers, and too big and powerful for most defensive backs. Thus, the hybrid linebacker/safety often has the best chance of success against Gronkowski.
To that end, how good is this Denver defense, and how is it playing relative to the dominance from the earlier part of the season?
Legwold: After some so-so moments in back-to-back losses to the Colts and Chiefs, the Broncos will come into Sunday's game No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in sacks, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in scoring defense -- just one-tenth of a point per game behind the Patriots. It's a group with speed all over the formation that has been able to match up against offenses that have tried to power the ball right at it as well as spread them out with three and four receivers. Coordinator Wade Phillips has been aggressive in almost any down-and-distance situation. They will play plenty of man coverage against the Patriots, because they have played plenty of man coverage against everybody. They are willing to live with risk, because they have the cornerbacks to do it, which allows them to do a variety of things to get to opposing passers. In the past, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as in the team's Super Bowl win last February, has pushed the ball to the perimeter against aggressive defenses, but the Broncos have muted that strategy much of the time with their team speed. With the Patriots' injuries at wide receiver, Gronkowski will certainly be Job 1 for the Broncos in the passing game, and they probably will pick their spots when they go after Brady.