Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots: 4 Storylines to Watch
That assessment was wrong.
The Broncos will be playing their biggest game of the season when they visit the New England Patriots this Sunday night.
The Peyton Manning-led Broncos (9-1) will pay a visit to Foxboro to face the Tom Brady-led Patriots (7-3). It will be the 14th time that Manning will face Brady.
There are too many storylines to list for this matchup, and that's exactly what makes this game so intriguing. When you factor in the history of Manning's Indianapolis Colts versus Brady's Patriots, the players who will be involved in this game, combined with the seeding implications at stake, this is simply a can't-miss matchup.
Leading into Sunday night's game, what are four storylines to watch for Broncos-Patriots?
This is the top storyline of this game. All you'll be hearing about during the game from NBC's commentators is the history between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
The two quarterbacks have faced off a combined 13 times leading into this game. Brady holds a 9-4 career mark versus Manning, including a 2-1 record in the postseason.
The only time these two have met with Manning in a Broncos jersey was last season in Week 5, when the Broncos fell to the Patriots, 31-21, at New England.
It would end up being Denver's last loss in the regular season until the Broncos fell to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7 of this year. Between their losses to the Patriots and Colts, the Broncos ran off a 16-game regular-season winning streak.
Now two of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation will meet again.
Both quarterbacks are in vastly different environments this time around.
Last season when the Broncos lost to the Patriots, Manning and the Broncos were still finding their footing. Leading into their meeting with New England, the Broncos had lost in mistake-filled games versus the Atlanta Falcons and the Houston Texans.
When the Broncos matched up with the Patriots in Week 5, they were simply overmatched—the Patriots led the game 31-7 at one point during the second half.
Fast forward to the present day, and Manning is leading a squad that may go down in the record books as the greatest offense of all time. Peyton now has Julius Thomas and Wes Welker (Brady's former favorite target) to throw to, while Brady is still finding his footing with new receivers such as Kenbrell Thompkins and Danny Amendola.
If there's one thing to conclude heading into this meeting, it's this—don't expect this game to be a blowout as it was last season.
The Wes Welker Storyline
If Wes Welker wasn't injured, all we'd be hearing about is Welker's return to New England, and how he will impact this Sunday's game.
Well, there's now another storyline to this equation—the NFL's best slot receiver has a concussion, which means he might not even play.
If there's any good news on Denver's end, it's that Welker practiced today. The problem is, Welker is just four days off of suffering a concussion, and he will still need to be cleared by an independent doctor in order to play in his first game in Foxboro since signing with the Broncos this offseason.
Via Will Brinson of CBSSports.com, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady believes Welker will play this Sunday:
"I've been around [Welker] long enough to know what he's all about. He loves playing football, and if there's a chance for him to play, especially coming back here, he's definitely going to be out there . I've got no question about that."
If Welker plays, the Broncos offense will be near impossible to stop.
If Welker sits, New England's chances of winning this game just improved a whole lot.
AFC Playoff Seeding
It is never too early to talk about playoff seeding.
Especially when it just so happens to be that the Broncos and the Patriots are currently two of the top three seeds in the playoff race as of this writing.
The Broncos are 9-1, and share the same record as their AFC West rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, whom they defeated last Sunday night. In order to continue to control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs, the Broncos will have to defeat the Patriots—something that the Broncos have not done in their last three meetings with New England.
The Patriots are currently in a battle for the AFC's other top seed. In order to gain a first-round bye, the Patriots are currently deadlocked with the 7-3 Indianapolis Colts, while the 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals trail just a half-game behind.
Because all three teams do not play within the same division, the tiebreaker—if there is one—will likely come down to conference record. At the moment, the Colts have a 5-2 conference record, with the Patriots at 4-2, and the Bengals at 5-3.
This game may not be a playoff game, but it will be played as one come Sunday.
The Broncos Offense
Much has been over how effective Denver's offense has been in 2013. Through 10 games, it is averaging nearly 40 points per game. There is no other team in the league that is even averaging 30 points per game.
Having said that, as dominant as the offense has been, it has slowed down in recent weeks. Over the first five games of the season, the offense averaged 46 PPG. In Denver's last five games, it has averaged just 33.6 PPG.
I don't think anyone expected the offense to maintain its torrid start to the regular season. It's only normal for defenses and coaches to adjust, and it doesn't help that the Broncos have faced two solid defenses in the Colts and the Chiefs during that time frame.
However, it is a fact that the offense is no longer dominant.
The question now becomes, how does Denver's offense match up with New England's defense?
New England's defense ranks seventh in the NFL, allowing just under 20 PPG. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a history of making life miserable for Peyton Manning—Manning's 86.7 quarterback rating versus Belichick (when Tom Brady starts) is 10 points lower than his career average of 96.8
With the Broncos' decline in offensive performance, the Patriots' tough defense and Belichick's history of making life miserable for Manning, how will this affect Sunday's game between New England and Denver?