It has all the trappings of a marquee game. Two MVP quarterbacks dueling it out. Two top-ranked defenses. Two undefeated teams—marking just the fourth time in NFL history two 6-0 teams have met.
And the game will be nationally televised on NBC's Sunday Night Football. All the storylines about Manning vs. Rodgers have been fleshed out ad infinitum throughout the week.
One quarterback is playing phenomenal football, while the other is months away from 40, in the midst of the worst statistical season since his rookie year. A head-to-head meeting of the old guard vs. the new.
To add to the pomp and circumstance, it's alumni week and owner Pat Bowlen will be inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame at halftime. Emotions will be running high. Both teams are rested, coming off the bye. And both teams are out to prove their mettle on the national stage.
It will be quintessential football. Let's get to the three keys to a Mile High victory.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has done a great job at manufacturing pressure on the quarterback thus far. He's been aided by the relentless pursuance of outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
And Phillips lucked into the gem that is Shaquil Barrett, who's managed to net 3.5 sacks in relief of Miller and Ware, while forcing four fumbles. But the truth is, the Broncos have pressured the QB from all levels of the defense.
12 different players have been credited with at least a half sack through six games. The Broncos are currently on pace for 69 sacks this season. The 1985 Chicago Bears hold the record with 72 team sacks. The record is within reach for Phillips' defense. But the Broncos face their stiffest test of the season this week vs. Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers is not only protected by the sixth-best pass blocking offensive line (according to Pro Football Focus), who've allowed just 11 sacks on the season, but he's arguably the most ellusive QB in the NFL and easily the best at making plays with his feet, whether it's throws on the run, or scrambling for positive yardage.
Rodgers has tremendous feel for the pocket and can instinctively sense the pass rush closing in. And he has the athleticism to get out of trouble, buy time for his receivers, and still find ways to make a play downfield.
He's so accurate on the run—it's scary. For the Broncos, consistent pressure is the best way to limit Rodgers, and it can't just be off the edge, by the outside linebackers. The push has to come from inside, too.
Rodgers might have a supernatrual ability to escape pressure, but he's still human. And he's most definitely a quarterback. Every QB who's ever laced up cleats struggles when pressure comes from the inside—in the face.
The Broncos have seven sacks from interior D-linemen thus far. They've been successful in creating pressure inside and they'll have to continue that trend on Sunday night.
The challenge will be doing so, while also trying to keep contain on Rodgers. They won't be able to do it every snap. But if they can succeed on third down, and keep Rodgers in the pocket, I really like the Broncos chances of winning.
When these two teams last met in 2011, Von Miller finished with two sacks. As well as he's played all year, Miller's been somewhat quiet in the stat department—and that's okay. But the Broncos need a big day from Miller on Sunday, working against RT Bryan Bulaga.
In the four games Rodgers has started against a Wade Phillips defense (DC or HC), he's 3-1 and he's averaged 276.5 passing yards, 2.5 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Those numbers might be alarming BUT this Broncos defense is a different animal entirely than the squads Rodgers has torched in the past. Two elite edge rushers, an aggressive D-line, fast inside linebackers and a ball-hawking secondary add up to a fear-inducing sum.
The Broncos feature so much speed on defense. Not only will Phillips have to call a great game, but the defense will have zero margin for error. They'll have to play their best game as a unit to come out on top.
Hey, Peyton—Come Out And Play
I'm not going to recount all the struggles Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense have endured this season. We've been down that road far enough.
Each week, we've been waiting for Manning to finally let his hair down and get back to playing like one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, rather than one of it's worst.
That breakout game has yet to come. All emprical evidence would suggest that we shouldn't hold our breath for it to happen this week vs. a Packers defense ranked first in scoring (16.8 PPG) and second in sacks (23).
But there are a few reasons to hope this might be that week. One, the Broncos are coming off of their bye. They've had time to self-scout and self-diagnose their problems and establish solutions to solve them.
We shouldn't be so naive as to think that all the Broncos offensive issues could be solved because of the bye, but with how much talent, knowledge and experience they have, I expect to see some progress.
Two, the Broncos have played four of their first six games on the road—in hostile environments. They come out of the bye at home this week, in their comfort zone and that should help Manning to re-gain his stride.
The Devil's Advocate would point out that Manning has just one touchdown pass and three inteceptions in his two home starts this year. But Manning typically thrives at home, when the spotlight's on him, as it most certainly will be this week.
Add to that the emotion of Pat Bowlen's halftime moment and the pressure of the enormous pall that has hung over Manning's head all season, and the Sheriff might be fixin' to finally break out.
Manning doesn't have to throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns. He just has to make good decisions, move the ball up and down the field and capitlize on any redzone opportunities.
Easier said than done, right? Manning has made a career out of doing just that on the regular.
No More Mental Miscues
The Broncos have been penalized 47 times this season, which is middle-of-the-road. They rank 17th in the NFL. The problem has been the timing of their mental miscues, especially on defense.
Too many times the Broncos have stopped their opponent on third down, only to turn around and find yellow laundry on the field. Personal fouls. Roughing the passer. It's a symptom of a defense wherein aggression has been drilled into their heads.
As several Broncos defenders have opined over the last seven weeks, it's collateral damage and the price you pay for generating a league-leading 26 sacks and 17 takeaways. Charge it to the game.
It most certainly is a double-edged sword. But against a team like the Packers and a QB like Rodgers, such snafus will cost you. Rodgers will capitalize on any opportunities to extend a drive because of a hair-brained lapse in judgment (I'm looking at you, Malik, Von).
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