For the Denver Broncos, Beating the New England Patriots is a Necessary Hurdle to Clear

Manning, Broncos Coaches Have Struggled Versus New England

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Oct 7, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) shakes hands with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) following the game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

COMMENTARY | Yeah, sure it's Sunday Night Football, Brady-Manning XIV, Wes Welker's return and a late-November game between two NFL powers with a combined 16-4 record.

It's must-see TV and all that, but this weekend's clash with the New England Patriots isn't a must-win game for the Denver Broncos.

Far from it.

In fact, the Orange and Blue could lose by double digits Sunday night and could still very easily be putting the wraps on the AFC's No. 1 seed by Christmas. That's just how fate and the schedule have played out this season for the 9-1 Broncos, whose seemingly annual trip to Foxborough has gotten sandwiched between the vital head-to-head matchups with the suddenly potent AFC West-rival Kansas City Chiefs.

Give the Carolina Panthers -- and the officials' end-of-game call or no call snafu Monday night -- a big assist here as that 24-20 loss in Charlotte dropped the Patriots to 7-3, putting them two games behind Denver and K.C. in race for the AFC's top spot.

That removed the "must-win" importance from Sunday night's game - at least from the Broncos' perspective - leaving it as simply, well, a nationally-televised prime-time tilt between two future Hall-of-Fame QBs guiding two of the NFL's best teams in 2013.

This one is mainly for pride, but when we're talking Peyton Manning, Jack Del Rio and John Fox, there's plenty of that to go around on the Broncos' side this week.

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Beyond that, though, there's seemingly something more in play here and it begs the question: Do the Broncos need this win more than they're letting on this week?

We start with Manning, who -- if you've been anywhere near any social media, turned on NFL Network or ESPN or flipped through any newspaper sports section this week -- you know is only 4-9 against Tom Brady in their 13 head-to-head matchups as starting QBs.

It's a respectful rivalry to be sure, but those nine losses include Brady's first start in 2001, a divisional-round playoff contest, an AFC Championship Game and Manning's fifth start as a Bronco last season. Manning did get the best of Brady when he rallied the Indianapolis Colts to a thrilling 38-34 win in the 2006 AFC title game en route to his one and only Super Bowl victory. But despite that and all of his NFL record book revisions, Manning always has played second fiddle to Brady and his three Super Bowl rings.

With both QBs rapidly approaching their late 30s, opportunities are at a premium, and Manning knows this could be one of his last chances to get in a parting shot in the rivalry.

Now we come to the Bronco coaches, who hardly have rated a mention amid all the pre-game hype and hoopla this week. Meanwhile, New England coach Bill Belichick is regarded as a genius, the man behind the curtain in Brady's success.

Manning, on the other hand, might as well be listed as the Broncos' head coach for all the mention Jack Del Rio and John Fox get.

Fox, of course, is still at home in North Carolina resting and recuperating from heart surgery earlier this month, but you know he's been burning up the cell-phone minutes and Skype time in conversations with his interim coach Del Rio and other folks at Dove Valley this week.

How much is it hurting him to be missing this game? How badly would he like to see his team beat Belichick and the Pats?

Both questions can be answered with two numbers: 1-5. That's Fox's record as a head coach against New England, including a close-but-no-Lombardi loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII while coaching the Panthers and an 0-3 mark as the Broncos' field boss.

That Broncos' mark, of course, includes the 45-10 beatdown Fox's first Denver squad suffered in Foxborough in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, ending Tim Tebow's storybook run in Denver and ushering in Manning. Still, even the QB upgrade didn't help Fox and the Broncos last season when Denver fell behind 31-7 in Foxborough and wound up losing 31-21 -- the Broncos' final defeat before the playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Del Rio, meanwhile, has fared even worse against the Pats, owning an ugly 0-6 mark as a head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars and as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. Del Rio's Jags made it to the postseason twice in his nine seasons in J'ville, and both times they were ushered out of the playoffs by none other than the Patriots.

Think JDR wouldn't mind getting rid of that New England goose egg Sunday night?

The Pats may need this game more but, for once, Manning, Del Rio and the Broncos have the better overall team and nowhere is that better reflected than in the pointspread as Denver is the first foe to be favored in Foxborough since 2005.

But will that be enough to overcome the Brady, Belichick and Patriot mystique?

For the Broncos, it's mainly a matter of pride. It's also a mental hurdle that's likely necessary to clear if these Broncos are to reach their ultimate destination this season.

Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He's been an avid follower of the Denver sports scene since early childhood, and can be found on Twitter @kenpomp.

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