On Sunday, the Denver Broncos will take on the New England Patriots in a matchup that is appropriately promoted as Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. At the top level, that's a perfectly acceptable billing: Manning and Brady will certainly be the catalysts for their respective team's win or loss, but one should not expect this game to be a passing shootout.
For certain, the Broncos made their money on the passing game this season. They broke numerous records, and Manning is a master at exploiting secondaries. He's a puppeteer, and every time he calls an audible or looks off a receiver, the secondary reacts and moves in time. His planning is impeccable and he absolutely is one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
But Brady is right there with him. He doesn't always put up the raw stats to pass Manning, but it was one of his records that Manning broke this season, so he's definitely been there before. Brady doesn't call as many audibles as Manning, but he's just as good as making the secondary dance to his whims. He can put up 400 yards a game as effortlessly as Manning can most days.
That said, the Patriots haven't looked quite as good throwing the football this season. Rather, they haven't looked quite as good running the football in previous seasons, so what we're seeing is something of an evening-out process. Something has lined up just right and the trio of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen to swing New England from a pass-first team to one that runs a balanced offense.
And that "balanced" offense ran all over the Indianapolis Colts a week ago, and is ranked higher in rushing than passing throughout the entire regular season. This year, the Patriots rush for, on average, 129.1 yards per game, good for No. 9 in the league. They pass for 255.4 yards per game, which puts them at No. 10 in the league.
Against the Colts, Blount catapulted himself to relevance with 166 yards and four touchdowns, with a per-carry average of 6.9 yards. Ridley did well too, with 52 yards and two touchdowns. Brady, meanwhile, threw for a modest 198 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Now I know what you're thinking: the Broncos have a strong rush defense and a weak secondary. Yes, this is definitely true, and the Patriots are smart enough to see that. Head coach Bill Belichick is also smart enough to know that the Patriots didn't make it to the No. 9 rushing attack in the league by abandoning their formula when the stat sheet dictates they could be in for a tough matchup.
That's not how winning teams work.
The Patriots know where they've found success, and while they will definitely try and exploit the matchups in the secondary, it all starts with running the football. At the end of the day, one of Manning or Brady will be in the headlines and one of them will have a shot at another Lombardi trophy, but there's so much more to this game than these two.