Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: The War of 1812, as it has been dubbed. They don't line up against each other, they're never on the field at the same time, but the showdown could come down to whichever of the two has the better performance.
With two of the best quarterbacks of our generation, would you have it any other way?
The two enter Sunday's game coming off hot performances, having combined for 678 passing yards and six touchdowns last week. Brady's 120.1 passer rating and Manning's 130 passer rating were both among the 20 best performances (out of a possible 129) by a quarterback this season thus far.
Here's a game plan for the Patriots to make sure Manning doesn't have another performance like that, and that Brady does.
Mitigate the Manning Magic
Peyton Manning is back to his old self, and Bleacher Report columnist Scott Kacsmar points out that a lot of what the Broncos are doing is similar to what the Colts did with Manning. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick related that sentiment (per ESPN).
[Denver's offense is], I'd say, 95 percent different [than what they were doing last year]. Some of the same players, some of the same matchups, but those players are doing different things. They're not running the dive option, it's different type plays. ...
It's identical [to the old Indianapolis offense]. Looks the same to me.
If it really is the same, the Patriots could be in for a long day. Manning has had his way with the Patriots defense in recent years, and although the personnel is much different this time around than it was when he last faced them, there just seems to be something about Manning where he can carve up the Patriots secondary regardless.
The Patriots have struggled against him recently, but fortunately for New England, they're getting him at a time when their cornerbacks are playing as well as they have all season. Unfortunately, though, the Patriots are playing as poorly as they have in a decade against the deep ball.
Mike Dussault of PatsPropaganda.com points out that the Patriots are giving up big plays at a record pace, and that is especially true through the air.
That could be a problem against Manning, supposed lack of arm strength be damned. The Broncos had six total plays of longer than 20 yards against the Raiders, and five of them were pass plays.
Bleacher Report AFC West lead writer Christopher Hansen highlighted a great pitch-and-catch from Manning to tight end Joel Dreessen where the tight end split the safeties on the back end and made the spectacular catch.
The gap between the safeties is an obvious tell for Manning that the middle of the field will be wide open on the deep-seam pattern for Dreessen.
What's more, as Hansen points out, Manning is able to get a read on the zone coverage with the nickel cornerback cheating inside a bit, not lined up over the slot receiver.
With the safeties both choosing to respect the deep patterns being run by the outside receivers, the middle of the field is left wide open and linebacker Philip Wheeler is left to fend for himself in coverage.
Manning put the ball in a spot where only Dreessen could get it, even though the tight end was surrounded by silver helmets by the time the pass landed at its target point.
Looks a lot like what Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and tight end Scott Chandler just did to the Patriots safeties this weekend.
Safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory both did exactly what the Raiders safeties did against Denver: They respected the outside patterns being run by the wide receivers and left the middle of the field vacant.
By the time the Patriots safeties got where they needed to be, the ball had already landed at its destination, and Chandler had scored a touchdown.
Manning has been downright cerebral this season, and although many were claiming he had lost his arm strength, it didn't appear that way last week against the Raiders.
It's up to the safeties to play disciplined in deep coverage to prevent giving up easy big plays to Peyton Manning. If there's one quarterback who will consistently make you pay for deficiencies on the back end of the defense, it's Manning.
Learn From The Past
The Patriots had their way with the Broncos in two games last year, scoring 41 and 45 points on them in two games respectively. Brady himself had one of the top 20 performances of his career with a 137.6 passer rating.
He did it with a huge assist from his tight ends, who combined for a monstrous 27 receptions, 391 yards and five scores in the two games.
These notes from Matt Williamson of Scouts, Inc. serve as a good starting point for our discussion of how to attack the Broncos defense.
Brady has been lethal inside the pocket but has struggled dramatically when forced out. That will be a big key to this game. The Broncos' pass defense has been much better when it does not blitz, but overall opposing passing attacks are posting big days vs. Denver.
Tight ends in particular have done a lot of damage, which could be a huge problem vs. Rob Gronkowski, who along with Wes Welker eclipsed 100 receiving yards last week. The defenses that have had the most success against New England's passing attack have gone almost exclusively to press man coverage to throw off the timing of routes and force Brady to make tight throws. Denver could take a similar approach, but the problem with such an approach is big plays can be allowed.
The Patriots went to their tight ends a combined 27 times for 351 yards and three touchdowns.
As Williamson notes, the Broncos defense has been better when they haven't had to blitz, but they may have to do so against the Patriots.
The Patriots offensive line has come under fire this season, but they handled the Bills' talented front four with ease. They did the same to the Broncos last year when the team opted to blitz; according to Pro Football Focus, Brady completed 7-of-9 passes against the blitz in the first meeting and 4-of-9 in the second meeting.
The problem with the blitz is that it opens up the possibility for big plays on the back end. If the Broncos are going to blitz, they have to get home, or else Brady will eat their secondary alive.
The Patriots did a lot of that in their two meetings last year and especially went after cornerback Chris Harris, who was targeted 15 times combined in the two contests last season.
They targeted Harris on a big 3rd-and-9 play in the first quarter of their regular season meeting last year. For starters, Harris lined up on Hernandez's outside shoulder. That's an inauspicious decision, with the entire linebacking corps being sent on a blitz.
With Hernandez running an in-breaking route, this is an easy decision for Brady, who goes to the tight end and allows him to make a play in space.
They may be without their tight end this week, but they have a bevy of skill position players, including Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead, who all excel at short patterns over the middle and who can all create yards after the catch.
The Patriots will likely run a lot of short patterns to try to counter the blitz and to also take advantage of openings that the blitz will leave. In the two contests, Brady only threw 21 of his 68 pass attempts deeper than nine yards downfield.
If there are openings as big as the one in the play above, the Broncos secondary could be in for a long day.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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