NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
It is simplistic to reduce Sunday's Denver Broncos-New England Patriots game to two men. But quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have been so dominant for so long, and so interconnected that it is nearly impossible to focus on anyone else.
Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium has so much on the line: two teams battling for the top seed in the AFC at the season's halfway point, the Broncos trying again to show that this season's edition is tougher and more physical than the one that lost Super Bowl XLVIII -- and blew a 24-point halftime lead at New England last Nov. 24. It will be decided as much by the ability of each team's pass rush and coverage as the quarterbacks.
But ultimately, it is all about Manning and Brady. Brady's teams have won 10 of the 15 games -- including postseason -- in which they've matched up. But Manning's teams have won five of the past nine since the Colts stopped a six-game losing streak to the Patriots in 2005 with a Monday night thrashing that helped portend an end to the Patriots' bid for three consecutive world championships.
Wednesday, the two quarterbacks exchanged respectful statements of admiration. There are only a few people who can relate to what Manning and Brady have seen, and over time, the two discovered a kinship.
"When you play against a guy for that many years and you have a chance to spend some time with him in the offseason at a golf tournament or a football banquet or maybe a Pro Bowl, you enjoy getting a chance to know the person as well, talk some football and talk a little bit of life," said Manning. "So, yeah, I consider Tom obviously a great competitor on the field but a good friend off the field."
Their friendship is so strong that the two bonded during a round of golf at Pebble Beach in the days following Super Bowl XLVIII. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick -- who called Manning the "best quarterback I've coached against" -- joined them. Like Manning, they know the pain of losing two Super Bowls. Like Manning, they live for the sport.
"I've enjoyed the time because I have great respect for the way they play, the way they approach the game. They're both very similar that way," Manning said. "They're football junkies, if you will. I think that's a compliment. I consider myself that as well."
Their admiration is sincere, but when Brady held his press conference Wednesday, he couldn't resist a light jab at Manning being one year older.
"I mean, he is older than me and has more playing experience than me," Brady said. "Maybe when I'm his age, I'll be playing as well as that."
In September, Brady was not. He was sacked nine times, averaged just 5.1 yards per pass play, and had a mediocre passer rating of 79.1. But in four October games -- all Patriots wins -- he averaged 8.4 yards per pass play, took only four sacks, and posted a 129.1 rating.
Both quarterbacks are soaring. Both teams are peaking. But Manning has not won in Foxborough since 2006. If the 16th chapter of Manning-Brady is to be successful for the Broncos, he will have to find a way to navigate through conditions and schemes that have stymied the league's all-time touchdown-pass leader as few ever have.
SERIES HISTORY: 45th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 25-19. New England has won four of the last five, including the postseason. The most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 19, 2014, when the Broncos sailed to a 26-16 win that produced their seventh AFC championship.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--The Broncos released Champ Bailey in a salary-cap clearing move last winter, and the wisdom of that choice was borne out by Bailey's inability to make the New Orleans Saints in preseason or to crack a 53-man roster since then. Tuesday, he announced that he would retire.
Bailey struggled with a foot injury last year that hindered his performance and accelerated his decline. But for the previous nine seasons, he was the linchpin of a defense that changed schemes and coordinators like socks, but could rely upon Bailey eliminating one receiver and one side of the field far more often than not.
"It was an honor and a privilege to play with him here the past two years, but it was really an honor and a privilege to play against him for so many years," said quarterback Peyton Manning, who also recalled when Bailey intercepted him while the two were in the Southeastern Conference at Tennessee and Georgia, respectively.
Bailey's influence continues to permeate the locker room, through the advice he gave current Broncos like cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
"One thing about Champ, he used to talk about he could see guys missing work and taking days off or something, or if they're sick, they didn't show up," Harris said. "Champ was like, 'Man, if I'm sick or anything, I haven't missed a day of work in 15 years,' and that's something that's stuck with me a lot with Champ, that he came to work every day."
The Broncos will honor Bailey at a ceremony Nov. 18. No decision has been made as to whether he will sign a one-day contract to formally retire as a Bronco.
--By now, head coach John Fox probably knows the back roads to Gillette Stadium without consulting his smartphone.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Broncos will face the Patriots in Foxborough, a run that began with the teams' divisional-round duel in the 2011 postseason. The Broncos have lost them all, although the margin has tightened, from 35 points in Tim Tebow's last start as a Bronco to 10 in their October 2012 duel to a 34-31 overtime defeat last November.
But why do the Broncos go to Foxborough so often? It's due to a quirk in the scheduling rotation. The AFC East and AFC West were paired for interdivisional play in 2011 and 2014; in December 2011, the Patriots visited Denver. Sunday's game is the return of that matchup.
In the two years in between, the games determined by division standings forced the AFC West to play at the corresponding team from the AFC East. The Broncos and Patriots won their divisions in 2011 and 2012, which set up the 2012 and 2013 games at Gillette Stadium. That reverses for 2015 and 2016.
If both teams maintain their form and win their divisions this year and next year, they will meet at Sports Authority Field at Mile High for three consecutive seasons, since the interdivisional series is already scheduled for a 2017 game in Denver.
"I actually did ask that question and then I was reassured that it'll flip in the future," Fox said. "So when exactly that is, I'm not really sure. But I'm kind of a one-week-at-a-time guy, so I don't want to confuse myself."
BY THE NUMBERS: 3.3 -- Peyton Manning's all-time interception percentage in games against the Patriots when Tom Brady was quarterback. His interception percentage in all other career games is 2.6.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Not really. I mean this is the best in the world. There's only 32 people that do this. And he's definitely set himself apart with the success he's had. So it's a huge challenge. It always is." -- Broncos coach John Fox, on whether he prepares differently for a Bill Belichick-coached team.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Peyton Manning is one touchdown away from tying Johnny Unitas for the third-longest streak of games with at least one touchdown pass, at 47. Manning has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 13 consecutive games.
--DE Derek Wolfe returned to practice Wednesday after missing Monday's session with an illness. Wolfe had a half-sack last week and has drawn consistent double-teams, freeing the Broncos' edge rushers to combine for 16 sacks.
--RB Ronnie Hillman was limited in practice Wednesday because of a shoulder injury suffered when he "landed funny," but he was not wearing a sling or wrap in the locker room after practice and appeared to be fine.
--LB Steven Johnson returned to practice this week after sitting out the Chargers win because of a mild ankle sprain.
--RG Louis Vasquez was not at practice Wednesday after being sent home because of an illness that appears to be going around the locker room.
--LG Orlando Franklin returned to practice Wednesday after missing Monday's work because of an illness.
--RB Montee Ball worked out with a team trainer Monday and Wednesday during practice. Ball is on the mend after suffering a groin strain in Week 5 against the Cardinals and is not expected to play this weekend.
--S Quinton Carter worked out with a team trainer during Wednesday's practice. The backup safety, who sees some dime work when the Broncos go to a three-safety alignment, is recovering from a hamstring strain.
GAME PLAN: The Broncos' emerging defense has shot up to fourth in yardage allowed per game, and first in yardage per play. Von Miller and DeMarcus ware have a combined 16 sacks. But their challenge is more difficult against a quick-timing offense that revolves around tight end Rob Gronkowski more than ever. Gronkowski has seven touchdowns and 558 yards on 40 receptions this season, and presents a matchup nightmare for a coverage scheme that struggled to keep pace with San Diego's Antonio Gates last week. The Broncos tried multiple safeties against Gates, to no avail, and might be forced to sacrifice size for speed by putting a cornerback on the 265-pound tight end.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker vs. Patriots CBs Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard. The Patriots might try to counter Thomas' size by placing Browner opposite him; last year, that assignment fell to Aqib Talib, who shut Thomas down in their November 2013 showdown until a late, game-tying touchdown. If the Patriots use Browner on Thomas, Revis would be free to cover Sanders, and could defuse the deep posts that have become a staple of the Broncos offense; Revis has allowed just one reception of more than 24 yards, and hasn't permitted a touchdown since Week 1. But against Welker, the Patriots could have problems, and with the wind expected to gust to 20 miles per hour, Dennard could see plenty of action if Manning chooses to emphasize Welker.
--Broncos pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller vs. Patriots Ts Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. New England's outside blocking duo has improved by miles over their September form, but Ware and Miller represent the sternest challenge since their 2-2 September. The ability of the Broncos' defensive tackles to draw double teams will force Vollmer and Solder into one-on-one matchups, and if they can't contain one of the league's top pass-rushing duos, Brady will be under siege.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun