The Denver Broncos head to Gillette Stadium for their third game of a four-game gauntlet.
The two previous games have been semi-easy wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos are the top dog in the AFC West and the whole conference. If the playoffs started today, the road would come through the Mile High City.
But the Broncos still have business to take care and this game is against Peyton Manning’s biggest rival, Tom Brady.
Manning’s record is a disappointing 4-9 against the Patriots including 1-2 in the playoffs. The one win did send Manning to his first Super Bowl and first title.
This will be Manning’s second matchup with Brady as quarterback of the Broncos. Last season’s meeting was when New England blitzed Denver with its fast-paced offense. The Broncos made it close late but ended up losing 31-21.
“It seems like I sure do go there a lot,’’ Manning said Wednesday. “I don’t know how that always works. I guess it’s random, they say, but it’s been strange how that works out.”
There are some other questions besides the play of the two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. Here are three pressing questions for the Broncos heading into Sunday’s game:
1. Who will cover Rob Gronkowski?
The Broncos have had trouble with Gronkowski in the past. He is too fast for a linebacker and too big for a corner. And now he is Brady’s favorite weapon due to a depleted, untested receiving group and another tight end sitting in jail.
When Mike Shanahan was the coach of the Broncos he tried a crazy idea that worked out. He let Champ Bailey cover Tony Gonzalez when he was with the Chiefs and at the height of his career. Interim coach Jack Del Rio should take a page out of that book.
Put Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the star tight end. Rodgers-Cromartie is good-sized and fast. He does not have the muscle of Gronkowski but should be able to make up for it with his speed. Leave the other corners to deal with the receivers. If the Broncos shut down Gronk, they should be in good shape.
2. Will the Broncos receivers create separation?
Last week the Broncos pass-catchers faced plenty of tough man-to-man coverage against the Chiefs. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker got open enough. But they face a whole other monster with the Pats’ defense.
New England head coach Bill Belichick has been known to frustrate Manning with his coverages. Belichick will have his defensive backs be physical with the Broncos receivers as much as they can get away with. Manning has complained about this before.
The biggest matchup with be Thomas against Pats corner Aqib Talib. If Talib is healthy, he is nursing a hip injury, Thomas will be in for a battle. Manning may have to look at the other guys if Thomas is shut down all day.
3. How much will the weather affect the game?
It is supposed to be a lovely night on the East Coast on Sunday. No snow or rain but temperatures in the 30s and winds up to 40 miles per hour. Not ideal conditions for high-powered offenses.
If the weather is that bad, the Broncos will have to rely on Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball to lead a strong running game. It will be tough to throw downfield in that kind of wind. The Broncos don’t throw deep nearly as much as the Patriots but Brady seems to excel in bad weather.
The Broncos are becoming more and more confident in their run game. As they head into the playoffs, they will need to succeed in that area. Moreno is getting hit a lot lately so look for more carries for Ball. He just has to not fumble and stay out of the doghouse.
Chris Schmaedeke is currently the Assistant Sports Editor at the Daily Camera in Boulder. He has worked in sports journalism in Colorado since 2001 when he started at the Rocky Mountain News. He has covered the Denver Broncos for several websites over the past two years.
Follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisSchmaedeke