There comes a time in every NFL head coach's career that he gets a shot to face off against the man who taught him the ropes. A win against the teacher gives the student the first crown jewel of his head coaching career.
For Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, that opportunity comes in the fifth game of his head-coaching career, and he faces a considerable challenge in beating his teacher: a three-time Super Bowl winner by the name of Bill Belichick.
When the NFL released its schedule this past spring, the matchup between the Broncos and the Patriots seemed like the ultimate David vs. Goliath game. That phrase could still be used to define the game that is now two days away, but it is highly debatable who is David and who is Goliath.
The Broncos are one of the NFL's most surprising teams, starting 4-0 after one of the most chaotic offseasons in recent memory. Led by a surprisingly stingy defense that has allowed only 26 points through four games—and with smart and thus far interception-free play by new starting quarterback Kyle Orton—the Broncos enter this game with a much better shot than many thought they had even one month ago.
Still, many people doubt whether or not this Broncos team is a contender or a pretender. Critics point to a soft early schedule and a fluke win over the Bengals as evidence that the Broncos are not ready for prime time and a brutal mid-season schedule will bring them back to reality quickly. That said, even the harshest critics are saying the Broncos are looking better than previously thought.
The Patriots, on the other hand, were expected to come out swinging following the return of quarterback Tom Brady to their lineup after missing most of the 2008 season with an ACL injury. While Brady has made his presence known—as shown by the Week One comeback victory over the Bills—the Patriots are struggling in other areas. Losing three key defensive starters this past offseason, the normally stout Patriot defense has had trouble getting on its feet.
Even with a struggling defense, teams around the NFL have learned never to count out or overlook the New England Patriots. Just when you think they're dead and buried, they fire off a long winning streak and blow by the competition. People thought they were through when Brady went down in Week One last year, but the Patriots—with a quarterback that had not started a game since high school—finished 11-5 and lost the AFC East crown on a tiebreaker.
Another thing that has added a level of intrigue to this game is the aforementioned chess match between the sidelines with McDaniels facing off against Belichick. Both men know each other really well, with McDaniels serving on Belichick's staff from 2001-2008, most recently as offensive coordinator.
Belichick will know the Broncos' offense and McDaniels will know the Patriots' defense. The wild card will be the Broncos defense, as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could be the difference maker in this game.
When the final whistle blows on Sunday, either the student or the teacher will be victorious (unless the ever-so-rare tie occurs), and David will once again have slayed Goliath.
Unless you are a fan of the team that loses.