Patriots vs. Broncos: Breaking Down New England's Game Plan

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Patriots vs. Broncos: Breaking Down New England's Game Plan
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
They meet again.

Even Superman has a weakness.

As good as Peyton Manning has been this year—that is absurdly good by the way—he can be stopped. He is a mere mortal, even if it doesn't look like it at times.

How can the Patriots stop such an offensive juggernaut? They will be getting a little bit of help from Mother Nature.

Manning's Performance in the Cold
Temperature QB Rating
All Career Games 96.8
30-40 Degrees 87.7
Below 30 Degrees 76.7

Mile High Report

Mile High Report took a look at all of Manning's cold weather games, concluding that Manning plays his worst when the temperature is under 30 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Accuweather.com, the game-time temperature will be close to that magic figure, with the "real feel" temperature approaching single digits.

However, the Patriots can't count on the weather to deliver the knockout punch. They'll have to take a couple of swings themselves.

 

Patriots Defense vs. Broncos Offense

I wrote about The Art of War and deception in football yesterday. The New England defense is going to need some deception and disguise to keep a lid on the explosive Broncos offense. In his weekly conference call, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia expounded on what makes Manning great.

I think he makes smart decisions with the football; whether he throws the ball downfield, short, intermediate, whatever it is, I think he just understands what the defense is, what coverage he's getting, and puts the ball where he needs to put it. I think that's what they've obviously done a great job of all year, whether [it's] passing yards per game, total yards, points… I mean obviously they're tops in the league, so I think he's doing an excellent job. 

Bill Belichick's teams have always done a good job of preventing Manning from knowing exactly what is coming pre-snap. With all the injuries in the defensive backfield, it might prevent some of that disguise from taking place.

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However, if the Patriots have at least two of their three top cornerbacksAqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington—available, they should be able to keep Manning guessing. Devin McCourty will have his range tested, especially when showing Cover 1 and switching into Cover 2. 

Pick plays have been a big part of Manning's offense this year, with Wes Welker running free after running his defender into a Bronco teammate. Patriots cornerbacks are going to need to have their head on a swivel and play physical to fight through these moving screens—especially near the goal line.

 

Patriots Offense vs. Broncos Defense

After a couple of costly sacks against the Carolina Panthers last week, the Patriots have to be concerned with protecting Tom Brady. One player that they must remain cognizant about is the mercurial Von Miller.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had this to say about how Miller and the Broncos defense presents a challenge to New England.

He definitely makes an impact. He's a great football player. This is a very good defense that we're playing. They have a lot of good players, great speed. They challenge you in the secondary, they're physical up front, they play a lot of people in the front. The front four, they'll rotate guys in and out. They have a lot of size up there: [Kevin] Vickerson, [Terrance] Knighton, [Sylvester] Williams, [Mitch] Unrein. They do a good job of mixing those guys in there and they also have good edge players. I think their linebackers are really a great core group of linebackers... Miller certainly makes them better and we're certainly going to have to play well on Sunday night. 

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I think that the Patriots will use the aggression of the Broncos defense as fuel for some big plays. I see Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola each making an impact in the screen game.

Aaron Dobson has shown that he can beat aggressive corners with double moves—his "sluggo" route is especially dangerous. Brady will certainly want to give Kenbrell Thompkins and Dobson some deep looks to test the safeties. 

 

What They're Saying

Wes Welker is coming back to Gillette Stadium, but he won't be wearing his familiar red, white and blue. Peyton Manning had this to say about what Welker has meant to the Broncos this season.

Wes is just an excellent football player, and he provides good veteran leadership to our wide receiver position, and just a guy that loves football. Loves to practice, loves to work. He’s certainly brought great knowledge, experience to our offense. He’s provided good ideas, suggestions on different routes versus different coverages, just because of all of the experience he gained playing in a sophisticated offense being in New England and playing with Tom. He’s certainly gained great experience, and he’s shared a lot of that with us. 

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Patriots fans shouldn't be surprised by Manning's comments. They saw Welker work and play for New England over a phenomenal five-year run.

Whether Welker ends up playing against his former team is certainly in doubt—he suffered a concussion against Kansas City last week—but he undoubtedly should get a warm welcome from the Patriots faithful if he does. Welker was able to practice today, so things are looking up for his return to Gillette.

 

Tale of the Tape 

Quarterback

If this game were played in Denver or a dome, I'd give the edge to Peyton Manning. However, Tom Brady has proven time and time again that he elevates his game when there is terrible weather—especially at Gillette. Cold hands can be a great equalizer.

Verdict: Push

 

Running Backs

Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball all cancel each other out, fumble problems and all. The Patriots have Shane Vereen, though, which could prove to be the difference in keeping Peyton Manning off the field.

Verdict: Patriots

 

Wide Receivers

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

While the Patriots receivers have played well as of late—especially Aaron Dobson and Danny AmendolaDemaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker are on a different level. Thomas' height and speed combination will be especially problematic for the Patriots' smaller corners.

Verdict: Broncos

 

Tight Ends

Julius Thomas, despite practicing on Thursday, isn't going to be at full strength after tweaking his knee against Kansas City. Rob Gronkowski, however, seems healthier each and every week. What gives the Broncos a push here is the injury to Michael Hoomanawanui, who injured his knee against Carolina in Week 11.

Verdict: Push

 

Offensive Line

Ryan Clady and Sebastian Vollmer are both on injured reserve. Chris Clark and Marcus Cannon have filled in well for their injured brethren. Each line looks much better when its quarterback gets the ball out early.

Verdict: Push

 

Defensive Line

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are having career years, but the interior has been an issue for the Patriots following injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Malik Jackson, Terrence Knighton and Shaun Phillips are all playing at a very high level this year.

Verdict: Broncos

 

Linebackers

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher aren't going to lose a lot of these battles, but Von Miller and Danny Trevathan are playing extremely well this season. Miller has athleticism that is hard to match on the edge.

Verdict: Broncos

 

Defensive Backs

The Patriots have one of the best secondaries in the league. Unfortunately, four of their top contributors were limited in practice and none of them are locks to play on Sunday. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris are aggressive corners that make a lot of plays on the ball.

Verdict: Broncos

 

Special Teams

Trindon Holliday is a big play waiting to happen, but Julian Edelman's quiet consistency is hard to ignore. Each team has enjoyed having quality seasons from its kickers and punters, but I wouldn't doubt that Sunday's game will come down to a special teams mistake. 

Verdict: Push

 

Overall: Broncos 1-4-4

The tale of the tape favors the Broncos, with some key injuries to the Patriots hurting their chances on paper. If a few players are able to give it a go—especially in the secondary—their presence and some frigid air might be enough to propel the Patriots to victory.

 

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Thursday's Injury Report Analysis

Did Not Participate: Michael Hoomanawanui

Limited Participation: Danny Amendola, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes, Aqib Talib, Leon Washington

Full Participation: Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, Shane Vereen

It is a good sign to see the top three cornerbacks for the Patriots—Talib, Dennard and Arrington—on the practice field, but that doesn't mean they'll line up against the Broncos this weekend.

Any snaps that Steve Gregory is able to play is a bonus at this point. His communication and leadership would go a long way toward solidifying a secondary in disarray.

Michael Hoomanawanui doesn't look like he'll be able to play this weekend, so look for James Develin to fill in as the third tight end when needed.

On the Broncos side of the ball, Peyton Manning was a full participant in practice after not practicing yesterday. Joel Dreessen, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas were all limited in practice but look likely to play this Sunday night.

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