Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos return to Foxboro this weekend to face a healthy and effective Gronk, an evolving Edelman, a near-perfect Brady, and the guy in the gray hoodie ‒ plus a few new faces.
With the highly anticipated matchup between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots looming, many fans are wondering what kind of game to expect. By examining some of the Broncos numbers in some key statistics, we can derive some details that might merit attention.
Denver and New England are among the best at retaining ball possession: Peyton Manning has only 3 interceptions, Tom Brady just 2. Denver has lost only 1 fumble this season, while the Patriots have lost 3. However, the Patriots have a significant edge on takeaways with 16 over the Broncos’ 8. Currently, the Broncos rank 8th in turnover differential, while the Patriots lead the NFL.
Two of the Broncos’ turnovers came in a loss to the Seahawks, their lone setback of the season. On Denver’s first play from scrimmage, Montee Ball ran for 9 yards and lost a fumble, with Seattle converting that gift into a field goal. Late in the fourth quarter, Manning threw an interception that Seattle returned 52 yards to set up another 3-point kick. While Manning drove the Broncos 80 yards in 35 seconds to force overtime, his interception put his team behind by 8 points before that late charge.
The Broncos’ lone takeaway against Seattle was a Chris Harris interception of a Russell Wilson pass that set up a 19-yard touchdown drive. They have seven picks on the season so Brady will need to be accurate in his passing.
Defending against Peyton Manning
If it seems like the Patriots play against Manning every year, well… they do. Since his rookie season in 1998, he has taken the field for 18 regular season games against New England, missing them only in 2002 (scheduling) and 2011 (injury). In addition, Manning has faced them 4 times in the playoffs. What do those 22 games tell us?
One thing to keep an eye on is Manning’s pass completion percentage. His career rates are 65.6% in the regular season, and 64.3% in the postseason. Against the Patriots those figures are 62.9% and 60.9%, respectively. Against New England during the Bill Belichick era, though, Manning’s percentages are 63.9% and 60.9%, respectively. Furthermore, in only five regular season games against the Patriots has Manning completed over 65% of his passes. His teams’ record in those games is 3-2. Below 65%? Just 3-10, including 2-7 against Belichick’s teams. Keeping his completion percentage under that bar would appear to bode well for New England.
Another data set to examine is Manning’s interceptions. The Patriots have picked him off 30 times in 22 games, including the postseason. Indeed, Manning managed to avoid being intercepted in just 6 of those games: One was last January’s AFC Conference Championship game in Denver, four were in the Hoosier Dome, and only one took place in Gillette Stadium. His record against the Patriots is 4-2 (3-2 vs. Belichick) when throwing no interceptions, and a paltry 4-12 (3-9 vs. Belichick) when throwing at least one pick. If history has any bearing, the Patriots defense will make Manning pay for any errant throws.
Covering the Wide Receivers
What makes Denver so strong in the passing game is their bevy of quality receivers. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders lead the team in catches, and Julius Thomas and Wes Welker round out the main receiving corps. One potential factor is the height of Thomas: At 6’3” he is taller than most cornerbacks and presents matchup problems for opposing teams. However, New England cornerback Brandon Browner is 6’4”, so if he’s assigned to Thomas and can keep up with him, fellow corner Darrelle Revis could be matched against Sanders.
Belichick has leaned heavily on nickel and dime packages to take away Manning’s air routes in the past, and doing so again could coerce the Broncos into running the ball more frequently. That would also bring in Kyle Arrington to match up in the slots opposite Welker, with whom he battled in practice for years. In their regular-season meeting last November, the Patriots used sub packages on every defensive snap, with Arrington limiting Welker to just four catches on eight targets for 31 yards. ln the AFC Championship game last January, New England similarly limited Welker on the stat sheet (four catches, five targets, 38 yards) although the receiver factored in other ways, most notably his controversial pick play on Aqib Talib on a crossing route that knocked the cornerback out of the game with a knee injury and drew Belichick’s ire a day after the Patriots’ loss.
Attacking Denver with the Run
Looking at Denver’s previous opponents, running the ball could prove to be a part of an effective game plan against the Broncos. While the NFL has become a decidedly pass-happy league, only five teams have run the ball more often than the Patriots in 2014. Ostensibly, the reason for that frequency is not only to provide balance for the offense but also to set up play action. However, the Broncos are vulnerable to the run because their edge rushers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, are both looking to get upfield after the quarterback and are not known for their run stopping prowess.
In their first seven games, the Broncos allowed over 100 yards rushing just twice. In Week 2, they faced Kansas City, which ran 31 times for 133 yards. The following Sunday, Seattle logged 37 rushes for 129 yards. By opting for the ground game on at least 30 snaps, both teams dominated time Denver in of possession: the Chiefs held the ball for 36:14, and the Seahawks for 38:04, including overtime.
Running the ball also kept Denver off the board, relatively speaking: The Broncos scored 24 and 20 points, respectively, against the Chiefs and Seahawks, and over 30 against their other five opponents. How many times did those five teams run against Denver? 19, 18, 15, 15, and 14. The Patriots have averaged 28 rushes in their 8 games to date, so a similar ground attack should help them control time of possession and slow down the Broncos’ offense.
The numbers indicate that the Patriots can beat the Broncos: by winning the turnover battle, by disrupting at least 35% of Manning’s pass attempts, and by intercepting at least one of his throws. Defensively, mitigating any height disadvantages against Denver’s receivers may help limit Manning’s throwing windows, as would taking away Welker as a slot threat. On offense, a diligent and steady ground game would help New England manage the clock, keep Manning on the bench, and minimize his opportunities.
Sources: Turnover data from ESPN.com, all other data from Pro-Football-Reference.com
Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.