Here we are again. Tom Brady. Peyton Manning. Mano a mano for the 14th time in their illustrious careers. And not to mention a bevy of other intriguing aspects to look out for in Week 12's best game.
The opening kick between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots is at 8:30 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium on Sunday (TV: NBC). But people have been talking about the matchup all week. Here's a summary of the anticipation so far, told through Twitter, followed by a prediction for the outcome.
The obvious narrative is yet another showdown between the two best quarterbacks of this generation.
To further spice up the storyline, Manning is chasing Brady's single-season passing record of 50 touchdowns...which the Patriots quarterback stole from Manning in 2007.
Passing touchdowns aren't the only record that Manning and the Broncos are chasing, though. Manning has his eyes set on the single-season passing yardage record as well. Furthermore, Denver's offensive juggernaut is on pace to break the single-season scoring record, held by—you guessed it—the 2007 Patriots.
Wes Welker, whom the Patriots famously let walk and sign with Denver this past offseason, is also a central figure. The Broncos slot man would love to have a huge game back at Gillette Stadium and show the Patriots front office what they're missing. But how much his concussion in last week's win against the Kansas City Chiefs will affect him is still unknown.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick showcased his signature laconism when addressing Welker's return.
Welker, however, provided some better context for the game, and his new quarterback praised his abilities.
The Patriots will be underdogs at home for the first time in eight years.
New England pulled out the victory last year against the Broncos. Since then, however, Denver has dominated the regular season.
Both sides are dealing with significant injuries. The Broncos attack could be compromised by injuries to Welker and breakout tight end Julius Thomas. Then again, the Patriots defense could be without some important players as well.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots might try to rely heavily on the run to eat up time and keep Manning off the field.
That being said, the return of Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski has the Patriots looking like their normal dynamic selves on offense
The weather may play a key role on Sunday night, as Manning's history suggests he underperforms in colder games.
Lost perhaps in all the hype surrounding the immediate excitement of the game is that this contest has major playoff implications.
And no preview would be complete without some random anecdotes.
The tale of the tape seems to favor the Broncos.
While Denver hasn't kept up its absurd statistical pace on offense from the earlier portion of the season, the Broncos still seem virtually unstoppable with the ball in their hands. The fact that the Patriots are missing some essential players on defense only exacerbates that problem. Welker has revenge on his mind, and Manning sees this as yet another chance to balance out his less-than-stellar resume against Belichick and Brady.
But my gut tells me that New England will pull this one out. For all the pundits who buried the Patriots before the season based on their sudden dearth of offensive weapons, this team could be 9-1 if a few calls went their way.
They've already taken down one giant at home this year in the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, and we might see a sequel to that performance on Sunday night.
It appears that the Patriots, closer to full strength with Gronkowski and Vereen, can match the Broncos blow for blow on offense. In that case, it will come down to execution in the final five minutes. It's hard to pick against New England if that's how the matchup shakes out, since it has proved time after time that it can find one last gear in the game's waning moments.
So as the clock approaches midnight in the frigid Foxborough air on Sunday, expect the Patriots to be celebrating as they run off the field.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Broncos 31
The best part about this game? It could be only the first of two between the Broncos and Patriots this season.
The Patriots don't have much of a challenge for the remainder of the season. A win on Sunday could be the first step toward a 13-3 final record. And even with a loss, the Broncos could still nail down the top seed in the AFC as long as they win out and finish 14-2, which would include a victory next week against the Chiefs.
Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but such a scenario could lead to a Patriots-Broncos rematch in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. So as we hunker down for Brady-Manning XIV, keep the possibility of Brady-Manning XV in mind for January.