The NFL’s prime matchup between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium Sunday will be a rematch of last season’s divisional playoff. But much has changed for the Patriots fifth opponent since that night. The Broncos have since improved on both offense and defense and will be a true test Sunday afternoon.
The most notable change for the Broncos is the addition of future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning who replaces the controversial Tim Tebow. Like he did with Tebow, Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has adapted the Broncos offense to make Manning more comfortable while still leaving room in the offense for Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee.
The passing game still has Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas from last year but they’ve added a familiar face for Manning in Brandon Stokley who was his teammate for four years in Indianapolis. With the Patriots biggest weakness being their defensive secondary, the Broncos will try to go deep to Thomas as much as possible.
The Patriots best shot to stop Manning’s offense will be at the line. The Broncos offensive line has struggled other than All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady. A familiar member of that line is long-time Patriot Dan Koppen who was released shortly before the season and has struggled all year in one-on-one battles. The troubled Broncos line could create big opportunities for defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and defensive end Chandler Jones.
In two games between the Patriots and Broncos last season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went 49 for 68 for 683 yards and eight touchdowns including a record setting performance in the playoffs. He finished the two contests with a quarterback rating of 149.8. But under new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the Broncos defense has improved and will make it harder for the Patriots to move the ball.
One difference under Del Rio is that he enjoys running blitzes more than previous coordinator Dennis Allen. This could create problems for the Patriots offensive line which has been decimated by retirements and injuries. Del Rio likes to send weak-side linebacker Wesley Woodyard and nickel back Chris Harris to cause problems for opposing quarterbacks. It’ll be a tough task to stop the blitzes with the Patriots having just one returning starter from 2011.
The Patriots top-ranked offense is still without star tight end Aaron Hernandez and receiver Julian Edelman. The Patriots passing attack will be challenged as they have to face a tough Broncos secondary that includes six-time All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey. With Bailey likely on Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots will need a big performance from Wes Welker who will go against the weaker cornerback Tracy Porter.
While the Patriots handled the Broncos twice in 2011 including a dominating performance in the postseason, Sunday they will face a much tougher foe. The Broncos defense has played better this season and the offense is greatly improved with the addition of Manning. It’ll take a strong performance to get out with a win.