5 Things to Watch During This Week's Broncos Versus Patriots Game
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady never actually line up against one another on a football field and play one on one, as Magic and Bird did back in their prime. But the two veteran quarterbacks, destined for the Hall of Fame, still have one of the best rivalries in sports history. And we'll witness another installment this weekend as the Broncos and Patriots meet in Foxborough.
And because the rest of the NFL slate is pretty awful this weekend, our typical "storylines you should know" article is going to focus entirely on the meeting between New England and Denver. Here are five key things to watch for during this Sunday's showdown at Gillette Stadium.
As Per Usual, This Game Matters
When has a meeting between Manning and Brady not mattered? This year's contest features plenty of playoff implications, as the two teams are battling for homefield in the AFC (which is almost always on the line between Manning and Brady), while holding off competition in their own divisions.
The Patriots are 6-2, in first in the East, and are just barely keeping themselves ahead of the Bills and Dolphins. A win this weekend would help vault them further into the lead in the division, and put pressure on Buffalo to continue their winning ways after their bye.
The Broncos are 6-1, and are a couple of losses better than the Chargers, who have to travel to Miami this weekend for an east coast game of their own. A win with a Chargers loss would set Denver up with a huge division lead, and would give them a solid advantage in the race for home field in the playoffs.
Of Tom Brady's 18 postseason wins, 12 have come at home, including wins over Peyton Manning in both 2003 and 2004. Of Manning's 11 postseason wins, 8 have come at home, including wins over Brady this past season and in 2006. And since the winner of this game will be favored to get homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, this game matters, like it always does for Brady and Manning.
The Battle of the Quarterbacks
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been around forever, it seems, yet they're still among the best in the league. This showdown of aging superstars still features plenty of firepower, as Brady and Manning are both having great seasons.
Manning leads the NFL in Passing Net Expected Points, and is on pace with the best per-drop back NEP averages in his career. It seemed completely illogical to expect Manning to repeat his historic 2013 performance this season, but there's apparently nothing logical about Peyton Manning.
Brady ranks sixth in our Passing NEP metric, and is sixth in the NFL on a per drop back basis as well. But he's on a hot streak over his past four games that rival the best four-game stretches for any quarterback in recent history.
After his first four outings, Brady had a Passing NEP of -12.15, and a Success Rate of 41.5%. Generally speaking, that means Brady's actions subtracted expected points from his team's offense, and his drop backs were only positive plays for his team 41.5% of the time.
Those numbers saw Brady ranked among the league's worst, alongside Geno Smith and Josh McCown. But his last four games have been an epic turnaround, which has launched him up the charts. Over that span, Brady has posted an 81 NEP, and a 59% Success Rate. His per drop back average of 0.55 NEP per opportunity would be the best over a full season since 2000 by over one-tenth of a point.
Brady couldn't be hotter coming into this game, and Manning couldn't be playing any better than he has for the past year and a half. So this rivalry is as strong as ever, with both signal-callers looking to out-do one another this weekend in Foxboro.
Did You Know Julius Thomas Used to Play Basketball?
Sorry, just getting you prepared now for the inevitable "basketball" commentary for the league's leading touchdown creator among pass catchers. Julius Thomas has already had his bye week, yet he leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns, and somehow might not be the best tight end in this weekend's game.
That's because he's going up against Rob Gronkowski, who is finally looking healthy and dominating opposing defenses as a result. Gronk ranks first in our Reception NEP metric among tight ends, while Thomas is fifth. On a per-target basis, Thomas is slightly better than Gronkowski, but the Patriots' star has seen significantly more targets (he leads NFL tight ends in the statistic).
These tight ends are two of the best red zone threats in the NFL, and will dominate the short-to-intermediate passing game regardless of the level of competition they're facing. And that short passing game may be in order this weekend, as the weather in New England is expected to be a bit blustery.
If the Weather Gets Bad, Can These Teams Run the Ball?
In fact, the weather could get bad enough to where passing the ball becomes a foolish decision. If that's the case, can these teams run the ball against the other's run defense?
Both of these teams have balanced offenses with very similar run-to-pass ratios (1.39 for Denver, 1.36 for New England), so they have certainly done their fair share of running so far this season. But when Denver runs, it's much more efficient and productive.
According to our opponent-adjusted Rushing NEP team statistics, the Broncos have the fifth-best rushing offense in the NFL on a per rush basis, while the Patriots have the ninth-worst. No matter who has been at running back for the Broncos, the efficiency of the offense has been solid, and is set up by Peyton Manning's command over the line of scrimmage and the constant threat of his passing.
The Patriots are struggling to find a back who can carry the ball between the tackles consistently, especially with Stevan Ridley out for the year. They won't find that task easy against the Broncos and their stout run defense, either. Denver ranks sixth in our rushing defense metrics (adjusted for strength of schedule), while the Patriots are sixth-worst at stopping the run.
So if this game turns into a battle of rushing attacks, it will definitely favor the Broncos. But it will probably favor the Broncos no matter the conditions...
The Broncos Are the Better Team, But the Patriots Are at Home
According to our team rankings, the Broncos are the best team in the NFL so far this season, while the Patriots are 12th. And according to nERD, our team ranking calculation, the Broncos would be expected to beat an average NFL team by over 12 points, while the Pats would only be 2.6 point favorites.
The Broncos rank higher on our opponent-adjusted offensive and defensive rankings, as well, completing the clean sweep of all the overall categories in our team ranks. But there is one wild card factor that could swing things in favor of New England, and that's the homefield advantage.
As I referenced above, these two quarterbacks have dominated their home playoff appearances against one another over their storied careers, with both players having success at home during their regular season matchups as well. Tom Brady-led Patriots teams have only lost 14 times at home over his Hall of Fame career, and he and his teammates will have to play lights out to avoid loss number 15.
The Broncos are objectively the better team, but the Patriots are on a roll, and at home. We couldn't ask for a better stage to watch the league's best rivalry played out this weekend.