This game has been billed as Manning-Brady XVI. Unfortunately, they won’t be on the field at the same time, and analyzing their past performances against each other won’t help us break down this matchup.
Broncos Offense vs Patriots Defense
The Broncos have numerous weapons in their passing attack. Most importantly, they have Peyton Manning. Manning torched the Patriots the last time they played, completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and 2 touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game. It was a flawless performance. However, personnel on both sides of the ball have since changed.
In that game, the Patriots played predominant man coverage. It certainly hurt that Aqib Talib, who was tasked with following Demaryius Thomas all over the field, left the game in the 2nd quarter due to injury. Manning exploited the mismatches that Talib’s departure created with his pinpoint accuracy. To be fair, Manning was so locked in that it really didn’t matter who the Patriots had in their secondary in that game.
The Patriots responded to the problems they had in the AFC Championship by signing cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason. The Broncos replaced Eric Decker with a more versatile weapon in Emmanuel Sanders. So with this new personnel, how will the Patriots match up to Denver’s weapons?
Between the 20’s, it will be tough to stop the Broncos. The Patriots will likely mix man and zone coverages throughout the game as they always do. This matchup will really come down to who performs in the critical moments of the game – 3rd down and in the red zone. In these situations, we’ve seen the Patriots match Revis on the opposing team’s best receiver. We’ve also seen Revis match up in man coverage to whoever is on his side. For instance, last week against the Bears, he played a couple of snaps of man against tight end Martellus Bennett when he was aligned to his side of the field.
No matter who Revis covers, one thing is certain – the Patriots do not want Brandon Browner, their big and physical corner, covering a quick receiver. This likely means Revis will take Emmanuel Sanders and Browner will match up on Demaryius Thomas. The problem here for the Patriots is that the Broncos are more varied with their formations this year than they were in 2013. This means Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders will align in the middle of the field and on the outside. The Patriots will likely respond to these various alignments in several ways. They could have Revis follow Sanders and Browner take Demaryius. They could also decide to lock Browner and Revis in man coverage vs two receivers on the outside (even if that includes tight end Julius Thomas) and utilize double-teams on inside receivers. Whatever the Patriots do, it’s almost a certainty that Bill Belichick will choose to disguise and mix coverages at critical moments to keep Manning guessing.
Patriots Offense vs Broncos Defense
Tom Brady and the Patriots have been virtually unstoppable since their Week 4 debacle in Kansas City. Brady has thrown 14 touchdowns with no interceptions in the last 4 games, and Rob Gronkowski is back to being his usual uncoverable self. The Patriots have also solidified their offensive line. More importantly, they’ve forced defenses to be reactive which has helped keep them from being aggressive and getting to Brady.
The Patriots use multiple personnel sets and alignments to keep defenses guessing. Often times, they’ll use big personnel, which gets the defense to match up with their own big personnel, and then spread them out across the field. This leaves Rob Gronkowski in advantageous matchups in space. It also keeps defenses out of their sub-packages. Sub-packages are usually where defense can use all of their intricate blitz schemes, and the Pats have done a great job of not allowing that to happen.
Ultimately, this matchup will come down to one player – Rob Gronkowski. Gronk is a big and physical force. His movement has gotten better and his involvement in the offense has increased with each week this season. In the last 4 games, teams have really done nothing to address him. They’ve left him in one-on-one coverage with smaller safeties or slower linebackers. They’ve allowed him to roam free vs zone coverage as if he’s just another guy. More so, they haven’t attempted to alter his path off the line. This has allowed Gronk to get into his routes right away, which has allowed Brady to get rid of the ball quickly. When this happens, the pass rush doesn’t have any time to get to him.
Jamming Gronk might seem like an impossible task because of his size. Yet, as a defense, it has to be a point of emphasis when playing the Patriots. Aside from the fact that he is less than a year removed from knee surgery, the point of disrupting Gronk at the line is to make him have to stop and start frequently. When big receivers or tight ends have to stop, it disrupts their routes more than it does for smaller and quicker receivers. If Jack Del Rio doesn’t address Gronk, then it doesn’t really matter who they have rushing the passer. They won’t have time to get there. Just ask the Bears defense, which allowed Gronkowski free off the line all day. Brady threw for 354 yards despite not throwing the ball more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage on 28 of 35 passes. That’s 80%, folks. The Patriots passing game is all about getting rid of the ball quickly, and allowing them to do that easily makes little sense for a defense.
If the Broncos do make Brady hold the ball, they’ll have the ability to get to him. Denver has done a good job this season of isolating Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware one-on-one with offensive tackles based on the alignment of their D-line. Whether it’s a 4 or 5-man front, the Broncos have shown the ability to generate these mismatches. The Patriots will likely use some chips on the edge to slow down their pass rush. Of course, doing that prevents receivers from getting out into their routes as quickly.
The running games haven’t received much attention in our preview, but don’t underestimate their impacts. There is a huge difference between 2nd and 9 and 2nd and 5. Also, keep in mind what Denver was able to do last year vs the multitude of 5 and 6-man boxes they faced. They ran the ball with success, even doing so in some critical situations. If either team can move the ball on the ground consistently, there is no doubt that it will significantly impact the other team’s game plan.
Regardless of the outcome, this rivalry is everything that is good about football. It’s always fun when Brady and Manning square off. So just sit back and enjoy this game, because we really don’t know how many more of these showdowns we’ll get to see.