Pretender or Contender? Each NFL season, we’re subjected to roundtable discussions featuring a motley crew of talking heads – intensely debating the substance of a particular team’s recent success.
Is the record inflated courtesy a generous schedule? What about too many lucky breaks to count?
Or is this team hitting on all cylinders at the right time and poised for continued success?
Rewind to the 2011 season when all the chatter was about the Denver Broncos and those unorthodox Tim Tebow-engineered wins. The offense was woefully anemic, but scored enough points thanks to an opportunistic defense. The Broncos kept winning, but were they really among the league’s elite?
No better way to find out than by playing the New England Patriots…who emphatically answered that question.
In two games against New England, a regular season game in Denver and a playoff game at Gillette Stadium, the Broncos surrendered 86 points, including that 45-10 postseason thumping. Tebow’s read-option was no match for Tom Brady’s precision passing attack. The Patriot’s duel-tight end package overwhelmed the Broncos secondary.
It was a jarring reminder just how far Denver was from being taken seriously in any playoff discussion.
Enter the 2012 Denver Broncos, still a work in progress, but already equipped with the tools to make this edition much more competitive. Bottom line: With Peyton Manning at quarterback, those Denver Broncos can score. The gap is closing. Is it closed yet?
When New England as the ball:
Yeah, Tom, I just can’t bring myself to like you. (courtesy Keith Allison)
As much as it pains me to admit, fact is fact, and the Patriots offense is a well-oiled machine consistently atop the league’s standings. Through four games in 2012, New England leads the NFL in points per game (33.5) and yards per game (438.2). It’s no secret how the Patriots move down the field – prolific passing attack with an often-undervalued running game – and that usually results in a bounty of points.
Perhaps Denver’s best chance of successfully defending the Patriots is by forcing Brady into operating a dink and dunk offense. With any surgical quarterback the key is pressure. Denver has to get that pressure on Brady early and often. Force him to make quick throws in hopes of disrupting his timing. Push New England into relying on a running game or short-yardage plays. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Broncos likely need to do all the above without resorting to frequent blitzing. The more Denver sends its linebackers and secondary after Brady, the more opportunities his tight ends and receivers have to find space downfield.
Make the Patriots earn every score. Translation: No big downfield plays. Denver can ill-afford to surrender huge passing plays as it did against the Houston Texans in Week 3.
The Patriots’ big playmaker is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who made mincemeat of the Broncos defense in that embarrassing playoff loss with 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He’s also listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, though something tells me he’s playing…
Staying on the injury front, the Patriots are likely without tight end Aaron Hernandez, who’s listed as questionable for Sunday’s game as he continues to nurse an ankle injury. Remember it was Hernandez – not Gronkowski – who burned the Broncos in the teams’ first go-round in 2011 with 129 receiving yards and a touchdown.
When Denver has the ball:
The Broncos’ dominating Week 4 win against the Oakland Raiders illustrated just how effective a balanced offense can be. Sure, Peyton Manning gets the mother lode of attention and glory (for obvious reasons), but Denver’s 165 rushing yards was arguably the difference maker.
I do, however, like you, Peyton. (personal photo)
When Willis McGahee and company are running effectively, it puts less pressure and strain on Manning’s right arm. Manning should not be attempting 50+ passes a game, but will if the onus is on him to create something. Veteran DT Vince Wilfork, rookie DE Chandler Jones, and the rest of the Patriots defense want to plug Denver’s ground game to make Manning pass. Forcing Manning to throw could create a similar outcome to what we saw in the Broncos’ Week 2 loss at Atlanta: Three early interceptions because of Manning’s bad decisions. At least that’s what New England is probably hoping. The Patriots defense continues to be remarkably average, but does have a knack for producing turnovers. Ball security will be key.
If the Denver offense puts itself in a bind due to turnovers, the Patriots are likely good enough to maintain that advantage all the way to a win.
New England 31, Denver 23
The key to this game could very well be which defense limits the opposing offense to a field goal instead of a touchdown.
My prediction is notable because it’s the first game this season where I project a Broncos’ loss. Of course, I would love to be wrong here. And hope that I am. I feel infinitely better about Denver’s chances this season because the Broncos have the ability to score. Unless Denver’s D was the 1985 Chicago Bears, the Broncos had no realistic chance of winning last season. Too many three-and-outs made for a gassed defense. This year, Manning can orchestrate drives that a) produce points, and b) let the defense rest.
The Broncos are closing the gap, but the gap isn’t closed yet. The Patriots are still the Patriots with the same key personnel, while the Broncos are still forging their identity.
Follow Denver Horse Force on Twitter at @DENHorseForce and Facebook at www.facebook.com/denverhorseforce.