NFL Preview - Denver (9-1) at New England (7-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's football's equivalent to Bird versus Magic or perhaps Ali and Frazier.
For the 14th time in their storied careers, future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face off against each other when the Denver Broncos visit the New England Patriots on "Sunday Night Football."
Brady has generally had the edge historically, going 9-4 against Manning's Colts and now Broncos but Peyton has posted a 4-3 record in his last seven head-to-head matchups after dropping the first six meetings.
Each has enjoyed almost stunning efficiency throughout their respective careers. In fact this contest will mark the first in NFL history in which both signal callers are at least 90 games over .500 as starters. Brady has the best winning percentage in the modern era and is at plus-101 for his career (143-42) while Manning is third overall in winning percentage and plus-92 (163-71).
"It's always a great matchup," said Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio when talking about the two QBs. "You're talking about two of the premier quarterbacks in the league and it's going to be shown in primetime and all that."
Manning's Broncos have been playing at the higher level so far this season and Denver defeated Kansas City, 27-17, last week, handing the Chiefs their first loss of the season. With the win, the Broncos are now deadlocked with KC atop both the AFC West and the conference as a whole at 9-1.
Manning threw a touchdown pass in that one, and rookie Montee Ball ran for two scores as Denver denied the Chiefs their first 10-0 start in franchise history.
Manning, playing on a tender ankle, completed 24-of-40 passes for 323 yards and was not sacked once by a unit which entered the week leading the NFL in that category.
"I thought they responded well against a very good front," said Del Rio about his offensive line.
Knowshon Moreno added 79 yards on the ground for the Broncos, who became the first team to score more than 17 points against Kansas City this season en route to winning their ninth straight game against a division foe.
New England, on the other hand, leads the AFC East by two games despite a controversial 24-20 loss at Carolina on Monday night.
The game ended despite a flag being thrown in the end zone on the final play, indicating a possible pass interference/holding penalty on Carolina's Luke Kuechly, but officials picked it up, a move that infuriated Brady, who followed referee Clete Blakeman off the field as the TV broadcast picked up audio of the veteran using an expletive to complain.
"I wish it wouldn't have come down to that," Brady said. "I mean I think there were plenty of plays we could have made, but it did and they're going to make a call or they're not going to make the call. We can play better than that."
Down by four with just under a minute to go and all three timeouts in hand, the Pats marched to the Carolina 18, where, on the game's final play, Brady threw a pass that rookie safety Robert Lester picked off in the end zone.
Brady was looking for Rob Gronkowski but the All-Pro tight end was bear-hugged by Kuechly behind Lester. The official nearest the play threw a flag in the end zone, but Blakeman and the rest of the crew huddled and declared there was no foul.
Brady completed 29-of-40 passes for 296 yards with one touchdown.
Running back Shane Vereen, activated from short-term injured reserve prior to the game, had 65 yards on eight receptions for the Patriots, who are two games behind the Broncos and Chiefs for the AFC lead.
"It's not really our job to call the game. It's to play it and coach it. Whatever calls they make are the ones that we live with," Belichick said. "We have to turn the page here quickly, get on to Denver. Good football team, playing well. Obviously, their record reflects that."
The Broncos own a 25-18 all-time record against the Patriots in the regular season, including a 9-9 mark in road games.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The banged-up New England defense faces its toughest test this week. The Broncos lead the NFL with 398 points scored -- the third-most ever by a team through the first 10 games of a season -- and Manning has passed for a league-best 3,572 yards and 34 touchdowns, a number on pace to top Brady's record season of 50 in 2007, which just happened to top Manning's 49 from three years prior to that.
The success of the Broncos offense is directly tied to Manning's high-level of performance along with a stunning group of playmakers which includes ex- Patriots star Wes Welker along with outside the numbers threats Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as well as dynamic tight end Julius Thomas.
Welker, of course, was Brady's top target for six seasons in New England, amassing 672 receptions and 37 TDs over that span while reaching the 1,000- yard plateau in five of those years. He is, however, dealing with a concussion and could miss his return to Foxborough. Meanwhile, Julius Thomas, who already has 10 receiving TDs, matching Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe for the most by a tight end in franchise history, is also hampered by a balky knee.
"(Welker is) a tough guy so he's played through everything," Brady said. "This is a big game for both teams so you have to expect their best players. I'm sure all those guys will be ready to go."
Welker hasn't slowed down much in the Rockies and has 61 receptions for 648 yards, one of five Broncos to have at least 37 catches so far in 2013.
"Wes has a great work ethic and he's provided just good leadership to our offense," Manning said. He loves football. He's a tough guy. He plays through injuries. And those are things that you appreciate about a football player."
The middle of the Pats D has been decimated by injuries with defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly as well as middle linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Adrian Wilson lost for the season. Meanwhile cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and safety Steve Gregory (thumb) missed last week's game at Carolina and the team's top over corner, Aqib Talib, was forced to leave after aggravating a hip injury that caused him to miss the three prior games.
Brady, who has thrown for 2,552 yards and 14 TDs, really hadn't been himself this season thanks in large part to the uncertainty at the skill positions but he has slowly been starting to hit his stride The fact that Gronkowski and slot receiver Danny Amendola are now healthy while rookie Aaron Dobson seems to getting it has to be a scary thought for most opposing defenses.
"It's pretty well documented my respect for Tom as a quarterback," Manning said. "The way he prepares. The way he's better each season than the year before. Every time you play their football team, you're playing a well- coached, disciplined team."
The Broncos suffered a significant hit on their defense when safety Rahim Moore was lost for a significant period after undergoing emergency surgery to stop bleeding in a left leg muscle.
The trends point to New England here. The Patriots are a perfect 5-0 at home this season and Manning is 2-9 all-time on the road against New England. Trends, however, don't take into account just how decimated Belichick's defense is.
Maybe a Patriots team with their full complement on that side of the ball would have the edge in this one but that's not the case so count on Manning exorcising a few ghosts.
"For us it's an opportunity to go on the road and face a team that's really been on top of the AFC for a number of years," Del Rio said. "It'll be a great challenge and a great opportunity to go in there and play a good football team and find a way to scratch out a win."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 35, Patriots 28
11/21 13:41:01 ET