There’s a chance AFC bragging rights will come down to the Denver Broncos–New England Patriots matchup this Sunday.
With both Denver (6–1) and New England (6–2) looking like the two best teams in the AFC (perhaps in the NFL), the matchup represents a huge opportunity for both teams to improve their chances at home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
It’s only the midway point of the season, but when all’s said and done, the first tiebreaker between Denver and New England—if needed—would be this weekend’s matchup.
And based on the remaining strength of schedule, it’s all the more important for the Patriots to get the win. Of New England’s remaining seven games after Denver, only one is against a team with a losing record currently. The combined record of their remaining opponents is 31–24.
For the Broncos, their good start has been helped by playing five of seven games in the altitude at home. But their remaining games are nowhere near as difficult, in theory, as New England’s. The combined record of Denver’s remaining opponents is 24–33–1.
But winning on the road doesn’t come easy in the NFL and a Peyton Manning-led team hasn’t beaten Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough since 2006 (Indianapolis Colts).
“Both teams are familiar with each other’s systems, both offensive and defensive,” said Denver head coach John Fox on Monday. “They’re tough to crack at their place.”
Of course, there won’t be too many more matchups featuring future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Manning, 38 and Brady, 37.
The two modern-day quarterback legends have 4 Super Bowls, 3 Super Bowl MVPs, 22 Pro Bowls, and 7 NFL MVPs between them.
“Not much he [Brady] does surprises me,” said Fox.
And after last season’s tilt in Foxborough, Mass., that saw the Patriots come back from a 24–0 halftime deficit to win in overtime 34–31, one can understand where Fox is coming from. Brady completed 81 percent of his second half passes and threw 3 touchdown passes to get the Patriots into overtime.
Coming into that game, Denver was 9–1 and New England was 7–3. The situation is none too different now.
Last year, Denver ended up as the AFC’s top seed with New England No. 2. The two teams also met in the AFC title game, which Denver won in Denver.
Denver Better This Year
The Broncos are a better team this year than the one that went to the Super Bowl last year. Manning’s having a better year, but the defense is the biggest noticeable improvement—especially against the run. Denver’s defense is ranked No. 4 in yards per game given up; last year, their defense was ranked 19th.
Denver has the league’s top run defense and is giving up nearly 30 yards a game on the ground less than what they gave up last year.
Manning’s play is better too. He’s the NFL’s top rated passer with a 119.0 passer rating and has only been better over an entire regular season once before (2004). He’s on pace for his highest completion percentage in his third season in Denver.
Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick called Manning “very smart” and talked about his great understanding of the game, his decision-making abilities, and how he makes the most of what opposing defenses give him.
“Whoever it is, he [Manning] finds a way to utilize him,” Belichick said on an audio call Tuesday. “Doesn’t matter who it is out there, he does a good job of finding ways to utilize the skills of who ever is out there.”
The Broncos are also coming off an extended break, having last played Oct. 23. That should give them plenty of time to be well prepared for a difficult trip across the country.
The Patriots will be playing their third straight game at home and are hitting their stride after an indifferent start. Questions about Brady’s capabilities have been put to rest and a healthy Rob Gronkowski has made a big difference in New England’s offense.
The Denver Broncos–New England Patriots matchup this Sunday is one of those handful of marquee NFL matchups of the season and not just because it’s Peyton Manning against Tom Brady.
Both teams are riding four-game winning streaks, but something has to give.
The game goes Sunday at 4:25 p.m. Eastern on CBS.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports