The narrative seems to write itself.
The Denver Broncos are all-in as their Hall of Fame quarterback plays out his final years, stopping at no expense and pursuing every avenue to build a championship team around him. The New England Patriots, on the other hand, are unmoved by their superstar quarterback's age and have chosen process over timing in planning for his final years.
The natural assumption: The Broncos have chosen a better path for Peyton Manning than the Patriots have for Tom Brady. But as Sunday's midseason clash at Gillette Stadium approaches, the teams both have six victories while establishing Super Bowl credentials. It might be impossible to ignore the Broncos' better cast of individual talent, but it's less clear that they have built a superior "team."
Have the Broncos done a better job building a roster around Manning than the Patriots have with Brady? Or has their work simply been more noticeable given the high-profile names and contracts associated with it? Is it time to challenge the classic team-building narrative? Or are the Broncos, three-point favorites on the road this weekend, set to bulldoze the field this season?
At this early stage, one thing seems clear: The 2014 AFC race will serve as a referendum on both the Broncos' aggressiveness and the Patriots' patience (or stubbornness, depending upon your point of view). The most visible difference: The Broncos' $124 million cash payroll this season is 20 percent higher than the Patriots' league-low total of $98 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information resources.
Those figures are based on the NFL's internal standard practice of reporting annual cash commitment, which does not factor in deferred money. When applying deferred money -- previously committed but only now being paid out -- the Patriots' 2014 cash payout is $124 million and correspondingly lower in previous seasons. Because neither the NFL nor the NFL Players Association tracks cash payout, a league-wide comparison of that figure is not available.
"One team is willing to extend itself [financially] and one is not," said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former NFL player and personnel executive. "One team relies on coaching and scheme and process, and one team has been much more of a go-getter in terms of bringing in talent. Those are just facts. Is one approach better than the other? There are plenty of ways to peel the apple."
The amount of cash paid out in a given season can be a misleading indicator given the timing of bonuses and other compensation. The first chart below shows that the Patriots "outspent" the Broncos during Manning's first year in Denver (2012) but have devoted less cash in the following two seasons. In reality, the Patriots paid Brady a $30 million signing bonus in 2013 (that counted on the 2012 fiscal year) in exchange for low base salaries in subsequent seasons. In essence, they have not used the extra cash flow that deal created -- even after taking into account the 2014 free-agent signing of cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Still, there is no way to deny that the Broncos have focused money and cap space to acquire high-caliber players. The next pair of charts represents metrics used by many NFL front offices: The number of drafted players among a team's 25 highest cap commitments, and the percentage of the total cap number occupied by the players with the 10 highest cap numbers. In sum, the figures neatly document each franchise's team-building narrative.
The Broncos' roster boasts five players named to the 2013 Pro Bowl, while the Patriots' includes four. Still, you would have a difficult time finding a personnel evaluator -- whose job is to assess talent in a vacuum and without context -- who would pick the Patriots' roster over the Broncos' after an offseason that brought linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders to Denver.
Another way to judge a roster's talent is to remove the quarterback and substitute one who would produce closer to an average performance. So I asked Matt Williamson, who scouts the league for ESPN.com, to evaluate each team's championship qualities with Alex Smith behind center.
"Denver would be [a contender] for sure," Williamson said. "They would be elite and still maybe the best team in the league. They have so many weapons. I know Manning gets the most out of them, but they still have a great offensive line and a very talented defense. The Patriots, the one thing you could say is that they're 6-2 now and the drop-off from Brady to Alex Smith wouldn't be as steep as the dropoff from Manning to Alex Smith."
Riddick noted that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has never pretended to be a collector of star talent in his role as general manager.
"If you look at the individual parts of these teams," Riddick said, "you would probably pick more players from Denver as guys that could succeed in any system. But you have to understand the hallmark of how Bill picks his teams. He is very specific about what he wants from each position. What he asks players to do is not necessarily what other teams would ask. That's been his mantra ever since he's been there, which when you look at their success over the years, really speaks to the fact that he is a pretty damn good at it."
I would contend that Belichick has given his team a lower ceiling with such a calculating approach, especially given the moderate success of his recent drafts. Even for the best coaches, talent trumps all in most cases. Belichick needs every piece of his roster to operate at peak efficiency to fulfill his plans.
Riddick, who played for Belichick in Cleveland from 1993-95, referred to it as a slim margin for error.
"Spending a lot of money doesn't necessarily equate to having better talent and better results," Riddick said. "Bill takes a value approach, but I do think he tries to address what everyone thinks would be deficiencies on his roster. He just does it in a different way. Some of it works out, some of it doesn't, but it's not like he doesn't see those things.
"It doesn't give them what is perceived to be a high ceiling, and it gives them a smaller margin for error, but Bill doesn't look at it that way. He says, 'This is a team sport, I'm a damn good coach, I can win with this specific roster and I'm going to hang my hat on that instead of what everyone else is perceiving as an unwillingness to pay top dollar, and that's the way it's going to be.'"
Is it good enough? Has Belichick found the right combination in 2014, or has he simply failed to maximize Brady's final years? Have the Broncos overspent in their attempts to do the same for Manning? Sunday will provide an important next step in answering those questions.