This is one of those games that every New England Patriots fan with a pen circles on their calendar.
The Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning visit Gillette Stadium in a battle of two AFC titans. While the headlines will go to the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the game will ultimately be decided by a few crucial matchups for both teams.
Let's take a look at some key positional battles for the Pats and Broncos in Week 12.
Demaryius Thomas vs. Aqib Talib
Demaryius Thomas is one of the league's toughest covers. It takes an elite corner to play man-under against him without getting picked on.
Aqib Talib is that elite corner at his best, but he'll need to stay healthy and focused if he hopes to snuff out the Manning-Thomas hookup.
Talib, who has played very well this season when healthy (a big when—he's missed five games), was torched against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11. Talib allowed four catches on six targets for 72 yards (mostly against WR Steve Smith) and yielded 20 more yards on two penalties before exiting with a hip injury.
Thomas, meanwhile, is fresh off back-to-back 100-yard receiving performances and has established himself as a No. 1 receiver.
While he'll certainly get his catches as a key part of an offense with a number of tough covers, the most important thing for Talib and the Pats' secondary will be to contain him after the catch. Thomas is as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any receiver in football—in fact, he leads the NFL in yards after the catch.
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Look for more safety help than usual shaded to Talib's side, especially if the Pats' top CB isn't 100 percent.
Pats' Defensive Tackles vs. Knowshon Moreno
Peyton Manning gets the headlines, but Knowshon Moreno will be one of a few players to decide the outcome of this game.
Manning simply has too many weapons for the Pats to sit in their base package. They'll need to play with extra defensive backs for much of the game. That leaves the defensive line without much beef to stuff the run, something the Broncos will almost certainly try to take advantage of.
Stopping Moreno in a sub-package is a tall task for the Pats' defensive line. Top DTs Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are out for the season, leaving Joe Vellano and Chris Jones to anchor the interior. Neither should strike fear in the hearts of the Broncos' run-blockers.
Look for newly acquired Isaac Sopoaga to play a role in this game. His run-stuffing ability at DT is something the Pats will sorely need if they hope to stuff the run out of nickel and dime packages.
Broncos' Front Seven vs. Pats' Running Backs
It's funny how the marketing for this game will inevitably focus on the QBs while the game will likely be decided by the run.
The Broncos are good at stopping opposing rushers (they're eighth in the NFL in rush defense DVOA—Defense-adjusted Value Over Average—per Football Outsiders), but they're relatively weak against runners with the quickness to bounce outside and turn upfield. They're outside the top 10 against runs to the C-gap (outside the tackles), which bodes well for shifty Pats running back Shane Vereen.
Vereen can use his shiftiness to elude aggressive linebackers like Von Miller once they sell out to a gap. He should be able to burst through the front seven for a few big gains into the secondary in this matchup.
Featured back Stevan Ridley, who is more of a downhill runner, doesn't have as favorable a matchup in this game. Still, he will be called upon to soften up the defensive line on early downs, and if he protects the ball he will play a huge role in turning this game into a time-of-possession battle. Ridley and LeGarrette Blount (another power back) will need to play their best in order to keep the game out of Peyton Manning's hands.