Denver Broncos (2-2) at New England Patriots (2-2)
1. They meet again
When it comes to quarterback matchups, Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady is must-see TV. These guys have been the No. 1 and No. 1a players at their position (you could flip a coin and not be wrong) for most of their NFL careers, consistently playing at an elite level and always giving their teams a chance to win. They have enough Super Bowl rings between them (three for Brady, one for Manning) to fill a hand.
Manning and Brady have been battling it out since 2001, when the Colts and Patriots both belonged to the AFC East. They have met a dozen times -- nine games in the regular season and three in the postseason -- with Brady and the Patriots emerging victorious in eight of the 12 contests.
The big difference in Manning-Brady XIII is that Manning now plays for Denver. He is 36 and still working his way back from a nerve injury in his neck that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. Yet he still looks a lot like a four-time NFL MVP. Just ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"He's playing at a high level, yeah," Belichick told the New England media. "He looks pretty good to me. Everything is good. His mechanics are good, decision-making is good, handles the team well, all the little things -- footwork and ball handling, throwing mechanics. He's pretty good."
Playing in an offense that looks similar to what he ran in Indianapolis, Manning gradually is knocking off the rust from his one-season absence. He has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,162 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions (all in the first quarter against Atlanta) for a 96.9 passer rating. With each game, he's looking more like the Manning of old, his 30-of-38 passing performance for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-6 rout of Oakland last Sunday being the latest proof.
Brady has been slightly better in his first four games: 65.6 percent completion rate for 1,227 yards, seven TDs and only one interception for a 102.4 rating.
There may not be many chances left to see Manning and Brady, 35, on the same field together unless the Broncos and Patriots meet in the playoffs after the season -- the teams aren't scheduled to play each other again until 2015 -- so don't want miss this opportunity.
2. In the line of duty
In the Patriots' 52-28 victory in Buffalo last Sunday, rookie Brandon Bolden and second-year man Stevan Ridley both rushed for more than 100 yards, and wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski each had more than 100 yards in catches. Only one other team in NFL history (the 2008 Packers) registered that double double in one game.
New England ran for 247 yards and four touchdowns against the Bills, and Brady passed for 340 yards and three TDs. But let's not give the Patriots' skill players all of the credit. A revamped line played a major role.
Four of the five linemen who started against Buffalo either didn't start in New England's Super Bowl loss to the Giants last Feb. 5 or played a different position. Nate Solder, the team's first-round draft pick in 2011 who made 11 starts at right tackle as a rookie, has replaced Matt Light (retired) as the left tackle. Left guard Donald Thomas, a journeyman, stepped in for four-time Pro Bowl pick Logan Mankins (hip injury).
Ryan Wendell, a former practice squad player, beat out longtime center Dan Koppen, who was cut at the end of training camp. (Koppen, by the way, now is with Denver and could start Sunday). Dan Connolly, who played center in the Super Bowl, has moved to right guard, replacing Brian Waters (who unofficially retired). And Sebastian Vollmer has moved permanently into the right tackle spot after starting only six games there, including the Super Bowl, last season.
That might not be a complete overhaul, but it's a lot of changes for one unit. That the line has played so well -- Belichick gave it big props after the Bills game -- is a direct reflection on Dante Scarnecchia, the teams' assistant head coach/offensive line coach.
Scarnecchia has been a fixture in New England since 1991 (he also was a Patriots assistant from 1982 to '88), preceding even Belichick. After 31 years in the NFL, the only coach to be on the staffs of all seven of the Patriots' Super Bowl teams obviously still knows how to coach 'em up.
3. Getting a foothold
The margin between victory and defeat seems to get slimmer and slimmer in the NFL. The Patriots are Exhibit A. If Stephen Gostkowski had converted a 42-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds in Week 2, the Patriots would have won their game against Arizona. If Justin Tucker had missed a 27-yard kick on the final play of the game in Week 3 (it narrowly squeezed inside the right upright), New England would have defeated Baltimore.
Instead of being 4-0, the Patriots are 2-2 -- because of two field goals. It couldn't happen again Sunday, could it?
Well, here comes Denver kicker Matt Prater, fresh off a perfect performance against Oakland (3 for 3 in field goals, 4 for 4 in extra points and touchbacks on all eight of his kickoffs) that earned him AFC special teams player of the week honors. The sixth-year player has been one of the league's most reliable kickers -- kicking in Denver's altitude certainly is an advantage -- since the Broncos claimed him off of Miami's practice squad in 2007.
Prater is 14 of 18 (77.7 percent) in field goal attempts from 50 yards or more -- the best mark among kickers who started their careers after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. He also is deadly accurate in the fourth quarter (27 of 28) and in overtime (4 for 4). The Patriots won't want to leave the outcome to Prater's right foot.
The Patriots' first-round draft pick in 2011 has moved from right tackle to left tackle, replacing longtime fixture Matt Light. A former tight end -- he converted to tackle after his freshman season at the University of Colorado -- Solder now must protect quarterback Tom Brady's blind side. Here's an excerpt from Solder's chat with SI.com:
Did Matt Light give you any advice before he retired?
I don't think there was any kind of sendoff advice. He's still around, and we talk. He's been a good friend and a good mentor to me.
What's the biggest difference for you playing left tackle instead of right tackle?
I think it's just technique -- your stance, the way you punch, the way you move, everything. That's the biggest difference. You know how (if you're right-handed) dribbling a basketball with your left hand or shooting a layup is a little bit different and takes a little bit of time to get adjusted to? And being next to a new guy at guard and being on the other side of the line sort of affects the whole deal. But it's definitely manageable.
You played against the Broncos twice last year, including a playoff game. How is their defense different now that Jack Del Rio is the coordinator?
They do a lot of the same things and they have some great players. They have some great ends and good defensive tackles, too, that play hard and try to disrupt things from the inside. It's definitely going to be a challenge, absolutely.
How do Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller compare to some of the other pass rushers you have faced?
I think they're both exceptional. Both really work hard and have a real knack of getting to the quarterback. It's definitely going to be a challenge for the tackles and the whole alignment to protect the quarterback.
You're a former tight end. Watching Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez catch all those passes last year, did you wish you could play tight end and catch a pass from Brady?
If I were a tight end, I would wish I was as good as they are because I never was as good as them. I don't think that was really in my stars. I'm where I am, and I'm glad I have the opportunity to play at all, really.
You've never felt like sidling up next to Bill Belichick and asking to line up at tight end for just one play?
Then I'd be afraid I'd drop it. (Laughs) I'd much rather just block.
What's something about Bill Belichick that you were surprised to learn?
I have to admit I was kind of completely naïve to who he was (before Solder came to the Patriots). I didn't know much about him, so everything has been a learning experience.
You're 6-foot-8. Is that ever a problem for you off the football field?
Absolutely. Walking through most doorways, which are right at the 6-8 mark. They don't make the world for people my size -- airplanes and cars and some ceiling fixtures. Always a problem. Some of these old doors have these big hydraulic closers where they slow the door as it closes. I remember walking quickly through a door one time and getting hit right on top of my head. Just about knocked myself out. Ten pounds of steel on the top of the head didn't feel very good.
As mentioned previously, this will be the 13th time Manning and Brady have met (including playoff games). Here's a look at their previous performances, duel by duel.
If Patriot Nation was nervous after back-to-back losses to the Cardinals (at home) and the Ravens (in Baltimore), their comfort level was restored last week when New England came back from a 21-7 deficit early in the third quarter and trounced Buffalo, 52-28. The Patriots scored 31 points in the fourth quarter, becoming just the fifth team in NFL history to ring up that many points in the final 15 minutes.
The loss to Arizona sticks out because the Patriots have been nearly perfect at home during the regular season in recent years. They were 8-0 in both 2009 and 2010, and lost only one game at Gillette Stadium last season.
In beating Denver twice last year -- once in the regular season and again in the playoffs -- the Patriots scored 41 and 45 points, respectively.
"They're going to make their plays; we just have to make more plays than they do on defense," Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter told Denver reporters. "We have to get our offense the ball back as many times as we can. If we can steal a possession, get two or three turnovers here and there to steal possession for our offense, that's what we're going to have to do."
It wouldn't be surprising to see Brady and Manning engineer a shootout, but the Patriots' better balance on offense will give them the edge.
Patriots 31, Broncos 23Last week: Giants 20, Eagles 17Season record: 2-2