No one thought this game would feel this way. When the Denver Broncos schedule came out months ago, this was a game you circled. It was going to be the big one. It would be the game to define the Broncos season, the game that propelled them to the Super Bowl. Most importantly, it was going to be the 17th edition of one of the greatest rivalries in NFL history: Manning vs. Brady.
Instead, this game is a very different one from what many expected it to be. Thanks to a torn plantar fascia and ineffective play, instead of watching Peyton Manning square off against Tom Brady, it's Brady vs. Brock Osweiler. Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?
While the game may not feature the marquee quarterback matchup many hoped for, it is still a monumentally important game for the Broncos if they are going to find themselves playing deep into the postseason. There are three things the Broncos must do if they are going to walk out of Sunday night's primetime showdown with a victory.
Anticipate The Break
The Broncos are lucky. They get to play the undefeated New England Patriots at perhaps the weakest point they've been all season. Their offensive line is makeshift at best, and thanks to a slew of injuries, Tom Brady is left to throw the football to receivers who have about as much name recognition as the janitor at your local Costco.
It doesn't matter. So long as Brady, Bill Belichick, and Rob Gronkowski still make their home outside of Boston, MA, the other pieces don't matter. The Patriots' scheme is what makes their offense work.
Earlier this week, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. told CBS4 Denver's Vic Lombardi who he thinks the Patriots biggest weapon is. "Josh McDaniels," Harris said. "He makes that offense work. He is the best coordinator in football."
Harris couldn't be more accurate. McDaniels and his offensive scheme have given the Broncos trouble for years. It's a system based on quick slants and in-cutting routes designed to get the ball out of Brady's hand quickly. It doesn't take elite talent at receiver to run the system, yet each and every time the Broncos play the Pats, it gives Denver trouble.
Rarely does Tom Brady beat you with the long ball. With Brady, it has always been about death by a thousand cuts. For the Broncos to win this game, their cornerbacks and linebackers will have to anticipate Brady's receivers breaks and be ready to defend slant routes, in-cuts, and other quick throws.
That will mean covering close to the line of scrimmage. If the Broncos play off the line and give Brady the space to complete throws inside of five yards, it could prove disastrous for Denver.
If the Broncos are able to cover the quick throws to the receivers in man coverage, it will allow Wade Phillips to keep Rob Gronkowski bracketed in double coverage all-night, which should limit his opportunities against the Broncos.
Turn Up The Heat
Remember when we were comparing this Denver Broncos defense to the 2000 Ravens? That was fun.
In the last three weeks, the Broncos defense has looked mortal, giving up an average of 338 yards and nearly 24 points a game. During the first seven games of the season, the Broncos defense gave up an average of just 16 points per game.
Much of the drop-off in defensive production has to do with a drop off in Denver's pass rush. During the Broncos 7-0 start, the defense averaged 4.14 sacks per game. Since then, they've averaged just 1.6 sacks.
The drop-off in sacks coincides with the absence of outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who has been out of the Broncos lineup since re-aggravating a back injury half way through Denver's 24-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
That is not a coincidence. With Ware out, the Broncos haven't had the kind of depth in thier pass rushing rotation that allowed their young rushers to stay fresh throughout an entire game. As a result, the Broncos have rarely been able to generate pressure without blitzing, and since getting burned on blitzes by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the son of bum has been hesitant to send more than four rushers. That has to change on Sunday.
For the Broncos to win, the Denver D will have to turn up the heat on Tom Brady. They'll have to force him into quick decisions, bring him to the ground frequently, and hit him as often as possible. Brady too a beating on Monday night against the Bears, don't be surprised if he's a tad gun-shy and could be easily forced into bad decisions.
Churn The Clock
While it's the Broncos defense that will have the biggest job on Sunday night, the Denver offense has an important role to play as well.
For the Broncos to win, Brock has to replicate his two touchdown, 250-yard passing performance against the Chicago Bears. Most importantly, he has to be able to maintain possession of the football, end every drive in a kick, and churn the clock.
The longer Tom Brady stays on the sideline, the longer the Denver defense gets to rest. Osweiler must be able to manage the game and find ways to run the football effectively
If the Broncos can win the time of possession battle by seven or more minutes, it will bode very well for them. However, that is much easier said than done, especially when Brady will almost certainly try and establish the run himself with most of his receivers on the injury report.
This is not the game many expected it to be at the beginning of the season, but that doesn't mean it isn't every bit as important for the Broncos as it's always been.
If Denver loses on Sunday, the road to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs becomes such a long-shot, it becomes essentially out of the question.
To avoid that fate, they will have to antipicate New England's receiver's breaks and cover the quick throw, get pressure on Tom Brady, and churn the clock on offense.