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Sunday Night Football Preview: Manning Chases History

Will Peyton make history...again?

Peyton Manning's chase for the all-time passing touchdown record is the biggest headline of Week 7, and he’ll have the opportunity to break the record in primetime as the Broncos host the San Francisco 49ers. If Manning is able to throw three touchdown passes, he will take over the top spot from Brett Favre, who threw for an amazing 508 scores in his prolific career.

Before diving into the game itself, I wanted to take a second to appreciate Manning using numberFire’s key metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP helps us determine how many points an individual player adds to his team’s final score on a game-by-game basis. Going back to the 2000 season, Manning holds 10 of the top 30 Passing NEP seasons. Manning has led all quarterbacks in Passing NEP seven times in that span. His career success rate has been 54.11%, indicating the amount of drop backs that have added positive points to his team.

His yearly average Passing NEP of 157.26 would have been the fourth highest total among quarterbacks last year. Simply put, Manning has played the quarterback position at a legendary level over the span of his career and is deserving of this prestigious record.

As for Sunday Night’s contest, the 4-1 Broncos are looking to keep up with the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West. The 49ers, winners of three straight will try to deny them a 5-1 mark.

The 49ers have transitioned from a run-heavy team into a dynamic passing offense led by third-year starter Colin Kaepernick, who currently sits in eighth place among quarterbacks in both Passing and Total NEP. The 49ers passing attack is currently the ninth-most efficient in all of football, performing almost seven points above expectation on a weekly basis. Kaepernick’s Total NEP comes into consideration when discussing Kaepernick and his contemporaries because he is among the most effective rushers of the group. His 242 rushing yards and 22 rushing successes rank first among quarterbacks.

The Broncos enter this contest as 6.5-point favorites, and the game has the second-highest projected total (49.5) among Week 7 contests. Using our advanced metrics, let’s see how this game shakes out:

Inside the Box Score

Everyone knows about the fire power of the Broncos offense, but what has gone unnoticed is the dominance they've displayed on defense. They rank 10th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play – our way of saying they are a top-ten unit when accounting for schedule strength. Denver has been especially good at stopping opposing rushing attacks, where they perform over two points above expectation per game. They are forcing the opposition to throw against them, which until recently, was not considered the strength of these 49ers.

The teams are projected evenly in rushing, with each expected to accumulate at least 110 yards on the ground. The difference in yardage will come from the passing game. Using our strongest predictors – games that have already occurred that draw the closest comparisons to today’s contests – a 2009 contest between the Minnesota Vikings (playing the Broncos in this comparison) and the Cincinnati Bengals is the strongest match to what we can expect to see in this game.

The 2009 Vikings fell a game short of the Super Bowl and entered this Week 14 contest against Cincinnati as 6-point home favorites. They out-gained the Bengals 192-103 via the air in their 30-10 victory. Brett Favre was effective, throwing for 192 yards and a touchdown while Adrian Peterson carried the load on the ground with 26 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings hung 30 points on a Bengal defense that was a top-12 unit. Each team turned the ball over once, but the key to the game was Minnesota’s defense holding Carson Palmer to 94 yards passing.

The projected game statistics show the recipe for the Broncos to win this game. If the Broncos can keep up with the 49ers on the ground and out-gain them via the air, they should have no trouble winning this contest. Manning’s weapons on the outside - Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders - rank inside the top 14 among wide receivers in Reception NEP while Julius Thomas leads all pass-catchers (receivers and tight ends) in Target NEP. Orange Julius has added 38.96 points for the Broncos so far this year.

Re-Establish Your Identity

Although our projections show that Denver and San Francisco will rush for approximately the same amount of yards, the key to beating Denver every week is keeping that dynamic offense on the sideline. San Francisco will need to regain its identity as a running football team to remain competitive in this one. Currently, the Niners rank 26th in per-play rushing when adjusted for schedule strength, and the Broncos as mentioned already, are great at stopping the run.

The strongest predictor in favor of a 49ers’ outright win and cover comes from a season-ending contest between the Broncos (playing the 49ers in this comparison) and the San Diego Chargers from 2005. These Broncos also came up a game short of reaching the Super Bowl and finished off a 13-3 campaign with a 23-7 victory over the 7-point-favorite Chargers. Denver quarterback Jake Plummer attempted only 14 passes, completing 8 for 91 yards as the Broncos rushing attack and defense led the way. Denver attempted 40 rushes on the night for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns. Its defense chipped in 6 sacks, 2 turnovers and a safety, helping them win the time of possession battle 33:22-26:38.

Running the ball for success and playing tough defense is how San Francisco can do the job on Sunday night. If they limit Manning to watching the game unfold from the sidelines, they give themselves the best chance to win. Things will be tougher for the 49ers if star linebacker Patrick Willis, who is dealing with a toe injury, is unable to play. The odds are stacked against them in this one.

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