BY THE TIME their plane touched down in New England early Tuesday morning, the Patriots had — publicly, at least — turned the page. The Carolina game was done. It was lost. So it was time to begin the Denver chapter in this 16-week storybook.
But as eager as they may have been to move past the Panthers, they couldn’t be all that excited to start reading about what’s coming next. Tom Brady may say that these sorts of measuring-stick contests are the most fun, and that he’s looking forward to the challenge of going head-to-head with Peyton Manning’s team for the 14th time. It’s important that his teammates take the same approach, too. That’s the attitude any competitor should have when his club is set to encounter one of the best.
The thing is, the Broncos aren’t just one of the best. Offensively, they are the best. And by the end of the year that may be true not only for this season, but over the entire course of NFL history.
The numbers say that’s not hyperbole. Through 10 games, Denver is on pace to score 637 points, to throw for 5,606 yards and to toss 54 touchdown passes, all of which are so far ahead of the league’s all-time records that new marks could potentially be set with a full game to go. They’re also threatening the league’s existing standards for yards from scrimmage, first downs, while only twice scoring fewer than 33 points and only once have they been held to fewer than 400 yards of offense. They gained 397 yards that time.
Basically, they’re producing the way the 2007 Patriots did, except these Broncos have more weapons in the passing game and a slightly more productive lead running back, so if New England fans are seeking a sense of what New England is set to face on Sunday night, they need only remember back to the level of confidence they would’ve had in their own attack six years ago — then also factor in that the opposing defense has already lost the two best players in its front seven, and could potentially be missing three starting defensive backs.
Daunting probably doesn’t begin to cover it.
“They’re really playing extremely well,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, “and (it’s) a big challenge in store for us this week.”
It would be an enormous challenge even if the Patriots were fully healthy in the secondary, let alone with Steve Gregory (broken thumb), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Aqib Talib (hip) all battling ailments that allowed them to appear at practice Wednesday, but kept them off the field as the Panthers marched to the winning score Monday, and threaten to at least limit the effectiveness of each this Sunday.
In Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and old friend Wes Welker, the Broncos have four receivers who’ve caught at least 45 passes this season. In Welker, the two Thomases, and running back Knowshon Moreno, they have four players who’ve scored at least nine touchdowns. And in those five players they have five players who’ve gained at least 590 yards from scrimmage this season.
The Patriot have one who meets that condition — Stevan Ridley, at 612 — which speaks to the precise operation of Manning’s offense. With diversity among his options, the attack is good in a wide array of areas, whether it’s protecting the quarterback (13 sacks), gaining territory in big chunks (46 passes of 20-plus yards), or getting what’s necessary (46 percent on third down).
All of those numbers are best in the AFC this season, and facilitated by the conference’s best quarterback.
“I think Peyton Manning just gets better every year,” Patricia said. “He just understands what the defense is, what coverage he’s getting, and puts the ball where he needs to put it.”
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ON TOP of its aching secondary, the Pats also face the difficulty of preparing for Denver with one fewer day than usual (due to playing on Monday), but if there’s any area in which the timing of this game might actually help New England is in terms of the injuries the Broncos may be dealing with themselves.
Welker briefly left Sunday’s win over the Chiefs after suffering a concussion, then didn’t practice Wednesday, so he could potentially be sidelined instead of making his return to Gillette Stadium. (Welker was back on the practice field on Thursday, however). Likewise, Julius Thomas’ status is to be determined after he took a big hit on his knee in that victory over Kansas City. If either of them is missing, it will obviously lighten the load on the Patriots’ defensive backs.
Some have also speculated that the weather could level the playing field, with the forecast for Foxborough predicting temperatures to be in the teens, with blustery winds, at around kickoff Sunday night. His 9-11 career playoff record suggests cold conditions aren’t what Manning prefers.
But, contrary to that idea, when the air chills, the ball typically doesn’t travel as far on kickoffs, and that brings Trindon Holliday into play for the Broncos. He’s averaging 32 yards per kick return this season, and is the only player in the NFL to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown this season, so he’s more than capable of mitigating whatever weather-rendered adversity faces Manning by putting him in prime field position.
“A lot of guys contribute; it’s not one-man show,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the 9-1 Broncos. “They do a good job in every area.”
Denver’s weakest area might be the way it protects the ball, as it has turned the ball over at least once in nine of 10 games, and have lost more fumbles (13) than any other team. But their explosiveness covers for their carelessness — as it did when they hung 45 points on the Redskins despite four giveaways — and so if the Patriots are to beat the Broncos they’ll likely need to do what the Colts did in a 39-33 triumph, and out-race them in an offensive track meet.
That’s a challenge Brady may personally anticipate anxiously.
But it’s one that might not make it so easy for his team to turn the page, and move forward.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.