Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are two pretty decent quarterbacks.
Let’s get this out of the way and say both will do just fine Sunday night when the 9-1 Denver Broncos meet up with the 7-3 New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass.
Manning will throw for 300-plus yards as he always does and Brady will complete pass after pass when the going gets tough, as he always does, and come close to, if not better, Manning’s numbers.
That being said, it would seem that the team that comes out on top will have to go above and beyond sensational quarterback play.
Last season, the above-and-beyond in New England’s 31-21 win was a Patriot rushing attack that chewed up 251 yards on an incredible 54 rushes.
Think about that: The Patriots rushed 54 times. That’s almost the average number of offensive plays for a team in an NFL game.
Most of the rushes came from a rapid-fire no-huddle offense when Denver had a nickel or dime defensive package on the field.
Brady would come to the line with at least two plays in mind and call the one he thought would work best against the Bronco alignment. Most of the time, that play was six or seven blockers and a big tailback rushing against Denver’s three or four linemen and gaggle of smallish defensive backs.
That game was the primary reason the Broncos bulked up in the defensive line in the offseason, adding 335-pound Terrance Knighton and 320-pound No. 1 draftee Sylvester Williams to the roster, moves that have helped Denver rate among the league’s best against the run this season.
This season, the Patriots have also changed significantly, mostly in the passing game due to changes in personnel.
Slot receiver Wes Welker is now a Bronco instead of being targeted almost 10 times a game by Brady.
Aaron Hernandez, another Bronco buster as a tight end, H-back and even tailback, is in prison.
Deep threat Brandon Lloyd was released.
Brady has not thrown the ball as often or as efficiently as in past seasons.
The Pats are 16th in the league passing, averaging only 237 yards per game. Brady is completing 58 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 83.6. Last season, he completed 63 percent of his passes and had a rating of 98.7. In the three seasons prior to that, he completed more than 65 percent of his passes.
Thus, the Patriots have tried to control the ball with the run. They are ninth in rushing at 127 yards a game.
Think Bill Belichick, a coach who has gained more than a little notoriety for his brain power, won’t try to run the ball at Denver again? Think he won’t make the Broncos prove they can stop what made them roughly 5 yards per attempt the last time around?
You bet he will, early and often.
That’s going to be Denver’s biggest challenge Sunday: Force Brady to repeatedly target monster tight end Rob Gronkowski or dump it to his backs for short yardage because the Patriots still don’t have much in the way of deep threats.
I originally had a big fear of this contest, mostly because Brady has bested Manning 10 times compared to only six losses (all games including playoffs).
Not this time.
The Broncos are loaded and healthy on the offensive side. Manning’s ankles won’t be a factor and Welker, who suffered a neck injury and concussion last week, will play.
Conversely, the Patriots are banged up on the defensive side, with three defensive backs questionable, including their best cover guy, Aqib Talib.
More importantly, the middle of their defensive unit is out for the season. Defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork, maybe the best duo in the NFL, are on injured reserve, as is starting middle linebacker Jerod Mayo.
I just can’t see Manning & Co. not being able to move the football, even in New England’s wintery conditions.
And I can’t see Denver, which has played one-on-one man-to-man cover defense all season, needing or using more than five defensive backs on any first- or second-down against the mediocre New England receivers, meaning they will be bunched up on the line to slow the run.
That will be the Broncos’ above-and-beyond that will make the difference — defending the run.
I’ll take my 9-1 record picking with or against the Broncos and go with them again to win: Denver 31, New England 27.