The New England Patriots enter Week 5 with a passing and running game (sixth and eighth respectively) both in the top 10 in the league. As a result of last week's blowout of the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots are now the league's highest scoring team (33.5 points per game) and have gained the most total yards this season (438.5 per game). Last Sunday, the Patriots became the second team in NFL history to have a 300-yard passer, two 100-yard receivers and two 100-yard rushers.
The type of balance demonstrated against the Bills in Week 4 cannot be expected on most weeks but the win represented the second this year where New England has won the game and have had a 100-yard rushing performance. This success through this offensive balance should not be seen as a coincidence and will be a key for the Patriots if they have any hope of repeating as conference champions. Another difficult opponent fighting for AFC playoff positioning is the new-look Denver Broncos.
The Broncos team from last season would not present much of a challenge to the Patriots this season, but this is not last year's team. Gone is polarizing and unconventional quarterback Tim Tebow, being "replaced" by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Manning has resurrected his stellar career after a series of neck surgeries and has again shown some of the brilliance that has made him one of the NFLs greatest signal-callers. For the season Manning is keeping pace with his prolific numbers of past seasons; averaging 290.5 yards passing per game.
Not to be overlooked, the Broncos to possess a solid running game to compliment their arial attack. At present, Willis McGahee is on pace to rush for over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns; both establishing career-high totals. For the season, McGahee has nearly equaled his receiving yards from last season and could also set new career-bests in this category as well. The impact of Manning takes some of the opposing defense's attention off of a running game that even surpassed 1,000 yards with an option quarterback last season. One can only imagine what this offense is capable of when Manning becomes even more accustomed to the weapons at his disposal.
Manning has played 16 games against New England t hroughout his career; owning a 6-10 overall record, passer rating (89.9) and yard passing (274.4) totals among his lowest against any opponent he has faced. Despite these comparatively poor numbers, there are many quarterbacks that would take those numbers as their own. For a player of Manning's status though, his performances against the Patriots pale in comparison to his career resume. In recent years, Manning appears to have found greater comfort in playing against the Patriots; completing 69.6 percent of his passes for an average of 325 yards per game in his last three games against New England.
Tom Brady faces off with two elite pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, who have combined for 5.5 sacks this season after totaling 21 sacks last season. If the front seven for Denver can pressure Brady, a Denver secondary led by perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey will have opportunities to create turnovers; something the Broncos have struggled to do thus far in 2012.
In order to keep the Denver pass defense on its heels, the Patriots would be wise to run the ball early and often, utilizing the combination of Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden as they did last week for a total of 243 yards. Through the season's first four weeks, the tandem has averaged over five yards per carry; and positive yards gaines on first down will go a long way in minimizing New England's need to pass on second or third down situations.
For the Patriots to be successful on Sunday, they will be best served to score early, establish the running game and control the time of possession. This will be a tough task against the league's ninth stingiest rush defense in the league (surrendering just 87.5 yards per game). If you exclude the 152 yards the Houston Texans gained in Week 3, the Denver rush defense looks even more formidable.
The quick release of Peyton Manning does not allow much time for opposing pass rush, although this season Manning has been sacked eight times in the first four games. With Manning's neck a constant area to monitor in the Mile high city, Broncos' fans should be somewhat concerned with the number of times Manning has being taken down at this season's early stage.
Even if not sacked, the less time allotted for Manning to throw the better; as Denver has two receivers that have been prime targets through the first quarter of the season. The combination of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker has combined for 45-percent of the team's receptions and 56-percent of the total passing yards from Manning.
The pass rush for New England will be of importance against an elite quarterback, In the last weeks the New England defense has allowed 300 or more passing yards to quarterbacks who are not in the same passing class as Manning (Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick). If the Patriots give Manning ample time to throw, the league's 25 th ranked pass defense could be in for another long afternoon.
This game has the potential to be a classic, with both teams entering play with balanced offenses led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. With no distinct mismatch on either side of the field entering play, the team that is able to establish a balanced offensive attack will have the early advantage. Every time Manning travels to Foxborough, the New England faithful give him a less than warm welcome. If Manning can put points on the board early, it could lessen the crown impact and set the stage for high scoring contest.
In the end, the Patriots have more passing weapons for Brady to exploit and can utilize the size mismatch tight end Rob Gronkowski presents on the Broncos' secondary. The game will be tight in the early going but I see New England pulling away late in the fourth quarter.
Denver Broncos 27
New England Patriots 37
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
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