If you think Broncos-Patriots doesn’t qualify for a legitimate NFL rivalry, then you are sorely mistaken.
And no, these two franchises aren’t rivals because their quarterbacks — two of the game’s all-time greats — have a series of epic games versus one another.
Also, no, this has nothing to do with Wes Welker‘s departure from New England after he had a rift with coach Bill Belichick.
Rather, the Broncos-Patriots saga traces long before the days of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, back to the inception of each franchise in 1960, when they played each other in their respective inaugural game in the American Football League.
Fast forward 53 seasons to Sunday’s collision-course meeting at Gillette Stadium, in what could very well be a preview of the AFC Championship Game, and one can see this yet another pivotal game between two proud AFC teams that boast a total of 12 Super Bowl appearances and five league championships.
Before we look ahead at what could be though— and recent playoff history tells us we definitely shouldn’t, we must look to the past to help guide us through what has undisputedly become one of modern football’s greatest match-ups.
To really get an appreciation for this rivalry, and its longstanding history in the league over a 50-plus year period, one should know Sunday’s contest between the Broncos and Pats is the 47th meeting between the two clubs, with Denver leading the regular season 25-18 and the Pats holding a 2-1 advantage in the playoffs, most recently dismissing the Tim Tebow-led Broncos 45-10 in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs in 2012.
Moreover, the Pats have played more games against Denver than any other team that has never been in New England’s division.
Denver hasn’t been able to beat Tom Brady & Co. since 2009, when former Bronco head coach Josh McDaniels led his team to an inspired 20-17 upset in overtime against his former club, which re-hired him as offensive coordinator before the aforementioned playoff rout in 2012.
However, the Broncos-Patriots rivalry goes way beyond one ineffective coach turning coats a few times.
Despite the three-game losing streak against New England, the Broncos are the only franchise in the league with a winning record vs. Tom Brady – a real point of pride for any Bronco player since Brady started playing in 2000.
In the regular season, Brady is a sub-par 3-5 against the boys from the Mile High City, while splitting a pair of playoff contests against Denver — the 35-point drubbing in 2012 and a 27-13 loss in the 2006 Divisional Round, when he had one of his two picks returned 99 yards by Champ Bailey that snapped the quarterback’s perfect 10-0 postseason record.
Belichick hasn’t fared much better against the Broncos as a head coach, posting a 6-10 record that just recently started to improve.
The key Sunday will be attack Brady, who is a notoriously different player under pressure and hasn’t been harassed enough to make any mistakes in recent match-ups against the Orange Crush.
If the Broncos are going to successfully avenge last season’s 31-21 loss, then they will need to get to a quarterback who finished below Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Hasslebeck and Kevin Kolb last season when passing under pressure.
Anyone with a TV saw this difference last night as Brady absolutely shredded Carolina’s top-ranked defense when he wasn’t rushed or hurried, but looked significantly worse when pressure was applied.
That leads us to Sunday, which will serve as a crossroads of sorts for each franchise.
The Patriots are reeling after a controversial Monday night loss and are home underdogs for the first time in almost a decade. Back to back losses wouldn’t necessarily threaten their lead in the AFC East, but it would send them spiraling downward in the AFC playoff picture to compete for playoff seeding with the Colts and the Bengals in December.
Meanwhile, a loss would be equally devastating for the Broncos, who enter the game with a lot of momentum after dispatching Kansas City 27-17 on Sunday night, but don’t have too much margin for error.
The upside is that a win would put them in the driver’s seat toward home field advantage in the AFC playoffs for the second year in a row.
Certainly, a lot is at stake here in 2013, but it’s worth remembering Sunday that this is more than just a contest that dictates AFC supremacy going forward — it’s a match-up that is amongst the best rivalries football has to offer.