Peyton Manning vs Tom Brady is always a fun debate to have, but this game is about much more than that. Let's take a closer look at what the Broncos are in the best position to cover the spread on Sunday.
There is a pretty solid consensus regarding this line going all the way back to the offseason. It started off at -7, inched up to -7.5 in the look-ahead line and re-opened -7 earlier this week.
Some money has come in on the Broncos moving it down to -6.5 at some shops, but if you have the ability to shop around, +7s are still out there (odds from SBRforum). I still think -6.5 is too high for this game, but I wouldn't feel nearly as comfortable without the full touchdown.
Manning vs Brady: Rematch
The battle of future Hall of Famers is getting most of the national headlines this week, but this matchup is much more about the rest of the rosters this time around.
Yet it's unavoidable to look at the comparisons between these two. Both are on the wrong side of Father Time, but both can still run an offense at an elite level.
Even if Peyton doesn't have the downfield arm strength he once had (yet), the thing that makes him brilliant is his ability to read schemes, adjust and execute.
Brady himself is also very human. Like any QB, if he doesn't get adequate protection, he can look fairly ordinary. Thankfully for him, his O-line has held up much better than expected coming into the season.
Grading the two, I still give Brady the upper hand, but the gap might not be as great as people think. Peyton is only going to improve as the year unfolds as he builds more chemistry and timing with his receivers.
The Mirage of Power Rankings
Power ratings are not the be-all, end-all of handicapping. For example, I saw that Dave Tuley aggregates three handicapper power polls and uses it as a guide for handicapping weekly lines on ESPN Insider.
The problem with this approach (and something they always ignore) is this is an inherently flawed method for analyzing games. The simple explanation is that two teams could have a similar power rating, but when matched up against each other, one team's strength could completely exploit the other team's weakness.
Of course, I'm not saying handicappers only use power ratings, but it's very misleading to suggest they do anyone any favors when looking at specific matchups.
I do have the Patriots ranked higher than the Broncos on my list, and when you add home-field advantage, they should be rightly favored this week. However, Denver has enough of its own mismatches to make this a competitive game and keep it within a touchdown.
X's and O's
We all know the Patriots can score points. Even without Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots can go back to a more traditional scheme and exploit defenses with Wes Welker. Throw in a highly-efficient running game, and this offense becomes downright scary.
In this game, the Broncos' defensive identity is going to be put to the test. They've been solid against the run this season and kept Darren McFadden in check last week. They've also been pretty solid against the pass (for the most part). The big problems thus far have been largely due to mental mistakes and blown assignments.
After a closer look, the questions come when they get in key situations. On third down and in the red zone, the Broncos D has been below-average. You can look at this as a sign of things to come or a result of early schematic problems and a tough opening schedule.
I cautiously lean to the latter thanks to the pedigree of Jack Del Rio and the talent at all three levels on the field.
If Elvis Dumervil, Derek Wolfe and Von Miller can cause enough problems for Brady on third down, Denver could win this game straight-up. At the very least, they'll need to be adequate in the make-or-break situations or too much pressure will fall on Peyton's shoulders.
The encouraging part for Patriots fans is the play of their own run defense. If they couldn't improve in this area this year, the defense as a whole was going to have a hard time getting off the field. Peyton will put them to the test this week with his ability to call the right play at the right time, but it's also possible they confuse Manning and throw his timing off.
The worrisome aspect for New England is their inability to pressure the QB. This has left the secondary exposed at times. If this continues, Peyton will have his choice over the middle and on the outside. I like Denver's chances to move the ball, even though it might require a patient and efficient approach.
The final thing to keep an eye on is the Patriots kicking game. Bill Belichick has given his support for Gostkowski publicly, but you have to think that this is a tough spot for a kicker. This is a high-profile game and it's at home. His ability to make or miss field goals might be the difference when all is said and done. No pressure!
Both teams have mismatches in their favor. The concerns I have are two-fold. First, it's always tricky to handicap the Patriots. They have the kind of flexibility to switch up the entire game plan from one week to another. Second, the Patriots are not a team you can get a firm handle on by looking at stats alone.
This is why they are often "spread-proof" and cover lines they have no business covering on paper.
Having said that, Denver is a good team. We don't know how good yet, but it should be able to hang in this one. If I was setting the line, I'd have New England favored by 4.5. I'll take that value every time, especially when I get a key number like 7.
NFL Pick: Broncos +7.
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