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.
2007 Patriots scored 589 points (holds record) 2013 Broncos on pace for 637 points- could be highest scoring team in NFL history.— Davis Hsu (@DavisHsuSeattle) November 22, 2013
Peyton Manning is on pace for 5715 passing yards this season, which would obliterate Drew Brees' 2011 mark by 239 yards. @NFLRT— Justin Henry (@JRHWriting) November 18, 2013
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.
Welker says he'll do dverything he can to play this week. And of Brady: “This week we’re pretty much enemies." http://t.co/mYUCtQ6aBL— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) November 22, 2013
Manning on Welker: "Wes is an excellent football player and he provides good veteran leadership ... guy that loves football."— Sun Chronicle Sports (@SunChronSports) November 20, 2013
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.
2012 Loss to Patriots Served as 'Wakeup Call': Since last year’s loss at New England, the Broncos are 20-1 in the... http://t.co/bA3j8XzaF2— NFL Breaking News (@NFLBNN) November 20, 2013
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.
Jack Del Rio on TE Julius Thomas, who is listed as Questionable: "Limited again today. We'll just have to make a determination."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 22, 2013
Friday Injury Report: Hooman is OUT. Arrington, Dennard, Gregory, Talib & Washington are questionable. #DENvsNE— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 22, 2013
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.
New England Patriots: Resist Temptation, Run The Football Against Denver http://t.co/z0kRGNaHk7— MusketFire (@Musket_Fire) November 23, 2013
That being said, the return of Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski has the Patriots looking like their normal dynamic selves on offense
#Patriots on 3rd down, with Shane Vereen: 16-of-30 (53.3%). Without Vereen: 33-of-108 (30.6%).— Erik Frenz (@ErikFrenz) November 20, 2013
The weather may play a key role on Sunday night, as Manning's history suggests he underperforms in colder games.
#Broncos QB Peyton Manning is 1-4 when game time temperature is below 30 degrees— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) November 23, 2013
Bill Belichick has team practicing in rain today, per the norm. Likes club to work in elements because they could get them any game-day.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) November 22, 2013
Lost perhaps in all the hype surrounding the immediate excitement of the game is that this contest has major playoff implications.
Current AFC Playoff Seeds 1. Broncos 9-1 2. Colts 7-3 3. Patriots 7-3 4. Bengals 7-4 5. Chiefs 9-1 6. Jets 5-5— Deep Threat (@DeeepThreat) November 21, 2013
And no preview would be complete without some random anecdotes.
Random fact of the day: Sunday will be the 1st game in @NFL history with both QBs at least 90 games over .500 (reg season, career)— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 23, 2013
DPShow stat of the day: Last 7 SB champs have played the NFC East and the Pats in the reg season. Only team to do that this year? #Broncos— Ryan Koenigsberg (@RyanKoenigsberg) August 21, 2013
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.