Devin McCourty's play against the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas will be key to the Patriots pulling out a win in Week 5.
Jake Locker. Kevin Kolb. Joe Flacco. Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The New England Patriots have not exactly faced a murderer's row of quarterbacks through four weeks of the NFL season. However, despite the dearth of talented passers the Patriots have faced, the secondary has been less than impressive and are currently ranked 25th in the NFL against the pass.
Even worse news for this group is that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos are in town this weekend and if history is any indicator, the cornerbacks and safeties are in for a long day. Manning has become one of the league's elite quarterbacks more for his reading ability than his throwing ability, something that has not changed following his one-year absence from the game.
Manning will most assuredly head into Sunday's game against the Patriots with a deeper knowledge of the the secondary's assignments than most of the secondary itself. For a unit that is at its best when taking advantage of mistakes, this will be a sobering realization.
As I'm sure you're aware, Manning cannot eviscerate a defense by himself—he needs receivers. In 2012 he has some talented ones in Eric Decker (24 catches, 332 yards and one touchdown), Demaryius Thomas (21, 325 and two), Jacob Tamme (15, 125 and one), and Brandon Stokley (13, 158 and one).
Thomas is the player that, quite frankly, scares me the most. The Georgia Tech product is big (6'3", 229 pounds) and fast and can turn a quick-hit pass into a big play better than anyone else on this roster (just ask the Steelers).
In all likelihood, the Patriots will attempt to match Devin McCourty up with Thomas and that potentially could have some mixed results. While McCourty had a big game last week with two interceptions, most of the plays he was able to make were a result of bad throws by Fitzpatrick.
If the McCourty of last week shows up and makes good instinct plays however, he could take Thomas right out of the game. That leaves Decker and Tamme as Manning's main options and a much more manageable situation for the Patriots defense.
The second-biggest concern will be Tamme and fellow tight end Joel Dreesen and their matchup with the Patriots safeties. Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung have struggled to contain tight ends this season, evidenced by Scott Chandler's two touchdowns last week and Todd Heap's solid performance in Week 2.
Always aware of matchups, Manning will look to exploit that advantage with his big guys. If he can avoid mistakes it is unlikely that this unit will make him pay for being aggressive.
While much of the attention will be on Manning vs. Tom Brady, do not underestimate the importance of the Manning vs. McCourty/Chung/Gregory/Sterling Moore/Kyle Arrington matchup, as that one could be just as interesting and possibly more detrimental to the Patriots.