By Rich Bergeron
The stage is set for a very special “Sweet 16” party at Foxboro Stadium Sunday afternoon with the 6-2 New England Patriots battling the 6-1 Denver Broncos. It will go down in history as the 16th Tom Brady (181-281, 2,059 yards, 18 TDs, 2 INTs) vs. Peyton Manning (174-252, 2,134 yards, 22 TDs, 3 INTs) match-up at quarterback.
Sunday will also mark a homecoming for some Ex-Patriots on both sides of the ball. Cornerback Aquib Talib signed a blockbuster deal with Denver in the off-season and Wide Receiver Wes Welker left for Denver after a magnificent stint with the Pats from 2007 to 2012. Welker’s suspension for taking an illegal substance while partying at The Kentucky Derby kept him out for the early part of the season for the Broncos, limiting his impact so far. Manning has plenty of viable targets he is now used to throwing it to, and he’s only connected with Welker 19 times for 181 yards and a touchdown over five games.
NFL Betting Line from Bovada – Broncos vs Patriots:
- Point Spread: Denver Broncos -3.5 (Even), New England Patriots +3.5 (-120)
- Over/Under: 55 points (-110)
Meanwhile, the Patriots have been quietly assembling a new-look defense. Since Patriots Linebacker Jerod Mayo went down on October 16th, New England picked up two new linebackers (Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers) and a defensive lineman (Alan Branch). Coach Bill Belichick is a defensive-minded expert, and his team plays exceptionally well at home. They are undefeated there this year and winners of 13 in a row at Foxboro. Manning’s had some miserable games at Foxboro Stadium, and he’ll be out for revenge. Belichick will be working “Revis Island” extra hard at practice this week to prep the cornerack for the battle he’ll have to win against Denver Wide Receiver Demaryius Thomas (47 receptions, 767 yards, 6 TDs).
This game promises to be one of the most epic games this season. These two longtime rivals are pass-happy offenses this year, and both teams have some banged up backs. Denver Running Backs Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman have combined for 521 yards and three touchdowns on the year on 130 carries. Both are hampered by injuries going into this game. Hillman hurt his shoulder at practice this week, and Ball is out for this game with a groin injury. Rookie Running Back Juwan Thompson is the only back at full strength going into this contest. He’s chalked up 107 yards on 24 carries, scoring his first three career touchdowns in the process. The Patriots are 25th against the run, so if the forecast of heavy winds prove too much for the passing game to flourish the Pats may be in for a long afternoon trying to stuff the run. It’s been a great year for rookies to break out for some huge numbers when the heat is on and the regular starter is unavailable.
Stevan Ridley is out for the entire season for the Patriots, so it’s all up to Shane Vereen (58 carries, 281 yards, TD) to carry the load as his team faces the league’s best defense against the run. Vereen may be doing more pass catching this time out as a result. He has 208 yards and two scores in that category on 26 catches. The Broncos are much more forgiving in the passing game, giving up an average of 242.9 yards per game. That’s the 17th passing defense in the league matched up against the Patriots defense that is 2nd in the league, giving up just 210.9 average yards of passing per game.
Both of these teams are playing phenomenal football this season, with the Patriots taking a little time to mature after a tough loss to Kansas City. The Broncos lost 4 straight in Foxboro, and Brady once broke Manning’s single-season touchdown record (Manning later took the record back), so Peyton Manning is coming in with a long history against Brady.
Both teams rely heavily on their big-game tight ends. Rob Grownkowski (40 receptions, 558 yards, 7 TDs) is the MVP in every game he plays at full strength in, and last week he scored 3 times. Julius Thomas leads his team with 9 receiving touchdowns. His 327 receiving yards accumulated over just 30 catches gives him a 10.9 yard average.
If the winds are whipping through Foxboro at full speed, the winning team will have to be the strongest running team. Long bombs will be taken out of the equation for whoever’s behind. Not to mention the field goals will be much harder to nail. Weather could play a huge factor. The home crowd could play an even bigger factor.
Prediction: The Patriots keep their home win streak intact. This game has the same feel as the Redskins vs. Cowboys game, except Tom Brady is not Colt McCoy. He’s much better. Look for the Patriots to pressure Manning on third down and rattle him early and often. The crowd noise and the winds and cold temperatures will be brutal for Manning, who will be yelling audibles all day trying to figure out what New England is about to do to him next. The Patriots will add to their 21 sack total and could come up with a stray interception. Tom Brady has the better receiving back, the home field advantage, and the momentum going into this game. The Patriots win 35-27 with Gronkowski getting all the defensive attention but Tim Wright (17 receptions, 182 yards, 3 TDs) catching all the tight end touchdowns in this one. Julian Edelman (45 receptions, 467 yards, TD) will also have a fantastic home game, showing off in front of his mentor Wes Welker. Manning and the Broncos just can’t outfox Belichick and Brady in Foxboro.