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November 23. 2013 9:23PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats have Del Rio's number

In the earlier days of the rivalry between the Patriots and Peyton Manning - a rivalry that, really, has had more influence on the shape of the AFC this century than any other - the matchup watched most intensely was the one between the defensive mastermind and the maestro who directed the conference's best offense.

It was the brilliant scheming of Bill Belichick against the abundant skills of Manning. It was the genius coach challenging one of this generation's best quarterbacks to overcome an often-exotic, usually unique gameplan specifically designed to confuse and confound.

But as the rivalry is renewed with tonight's much-anticipated meeting between Belichick's Pats and Manning's Broncos, it might actually be the battle between the other coach and the other quarterback that gives New England the best chance of beating Denver.

Belichick doesn't have the defensive personnel he did back then, so his strategy tends to be more vanilla these days. Meanwhile, Manning's attack is so loaded with weapons that thus far it's appeared almost impossible to shut down completely.
 
However, Tom Brady has a long history of success against defenses coordinated by Broncos' interim head coach Jack Del Rio, and particularly with his Patriot offense starting to purr as key cogs in the engine get healthier, that track record of success suggests Brady's bunch may be well positioned to hang in if tonight's tussle should turn into a shootout.

The Del Rio-Brady duel dates back to 2003, when the former linebacker was the head coach in Jacksonville - a position he held until taking over as Denver's defensive coordinator in 2012. Over that time, the coach and quarterback have butted heads six times - and not only has Brady won all six games, he's been excellent in all of them.

He had a game where he completed 23 of 26 passes, with four touchdowns, and another where he went 26-for-28 with three scores. Those are two of the four times he's hit on at least 70 percent of his throws, and in five of the six meetings his passer rating was better than 103.

On average his teams are scoring 29.3 against Del Rio's team, and personally he's completed 74.1 percent of his passes for a total of 1,430 yards, which is good for an average of 7.7 yards per attempt. Even more impressive is that he's tossed 14 touchdowns without an interception, putting his passer rating at a robust 121.2.

It's not as though Del Rio had bad defenses with the Jaguars, either. When the Patriots faced them in the 2003 and 2005 seasons, they were the NFL's sixth-best in terms of yards allowed in each of those seasons. Then they were second in yardage, and fourth in points, when the Patriots beat them in 2006 - and still a top-10 scoring unit when the teams met in the 2007 campaign.

In fact, two of the games while Del Rio was in Jacksonville were playoff tilts, then last year he came to Foxborough as defensive coordinator of a Denver team that would eventually be the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and would boast a defense that finished the year having allowed the fourth-fewest yards and second-fewest points in football.

Trailing 31-7 at one point, they lost 31-21, as Brady steered his team to scores on five of six possessions at one point.
 
That was the third straight time Brady has shredded the Broncos - remember, he beat them 41-23 and 45-10 in 2011 - which is another bit of history that bodes well for the Patriots today. So is the way in which New England has beaten Del Rio's teams over the past decade.
 
Last year, Brady was 22 for 26 on short passes. Four years ago he was 19 for 21. A year before that, he was 25 for 27. Wes Welker totaled 35 catches for 294 yards in those three games, and in all six contests against Del Rio's defenses, the Patriots' leading receiver has either been its slot receiver or a tight end.

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UNDERRATED: Importance of Alfonzo Dennard. The cornerback is questionable after missing the Carolina loss with a knee injury, and while he's not Aqib Talib, Dennard would be a significant loss tonight, given how often the Patriots are likely to be in nickel and dime packages. If he (or Talib, or Kyle Arrington) doesn't play, Marquice Cole is likely to play a lot of snaps - and while he's a decent special teams player, he'd be a mismatch in coverage on Welker, Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker.

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OVERRATED: Denver's turnovers. The Broncos have lost more fumbles than anyone, yet they've won seven games in which they've had more giveaways than takeaways. They're 9-1 this season despite a negative-2 turnover differential, so simply forcing turnovers isn't enough. They must be turned into points, and stops still must be made elsewhere.

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KEEP AN EYE ON.: Welker. The Patriots should know better than anyone how dangerous he is over the middle of the field, so it'll be interesting to see how much of an emphasis they place on taking him away from Manning. Keep an ear on him, too: The pro-Patriots crowd should cheer his six years of excellent play at their first chance.

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KEY MATCHUP: New England's offensive line vs. Denver's pass rush. Ex-Charger Shaun Phillips has nine sacks to lead a group of four Broncos who'd dropped at least four quarterbacks - and that doesn't include the vaunted Von Miller, who has two after being suspended for the first six games. Given that they may need to score a lot, the Pats must give Brady time to throw.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Brady and Manning have combined to throw for 110,417 career passing yards. Take all the quarterbacks in NFL history, and there's only 22 other combinations who could equal that.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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