The New England Patriots offense had been pronounced dead, but it started coming back to life strong a few weeks ago, lighting up scoreboards. Because of that, I feel like their Sunday afternoon matchup with the Denver Broncos this Sunday will probably be a lot more fun. That being said, here are the three most important questions headed into the game. The team that answers them correctly is probably going home a winner this weekend.
1. Will the Patriots be able to generate a pass rush without Chandler Jones in the lineup?
Denver finally runs into a team that matches up well against them in the secondary. With Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Logan Ryan (and maybe Alfonzo Dennard, who missed a few games early in the season dealing with a shoulder injury and was also a healthy scratch against the Bears last Sunday), the Patriots boast the second-best pass defense in the NFL, and match up physically with Broncos receivers of all shapes and sizes. Those guys are all equipped to cover someone small like Wes Welker or big like Demaryius Thomas, no matter where they line up on the field. The safeties, along with linebacker Jamie Collins, match up well with Broncos all-world tight end Julius Thomas. You might also recall Collins already has some (bad) experience covering Thomas in the AFC Championship game earlier this year, and Thomas has only gotten better since then. I would think Collins is chomping at the bit to get another shot to show he can keep up with Thomas.
NFL Week 9
Our 'experts' have Broncos among favorites
The Denver Broncos will face the New England Patriots, while the Dallas Cowboys host the Arizona Cardinals. See who our experts think will continue their climb to the top of the standings.
NFL Week 9
That was the good news.
The bad news is that if Patriots' pass rush can't get to Peyton Manning, it won't matter how good the coverage is because eventually somebody is going to get open. At that point, Manning will go full surgeon on their ass and the game will be over before halftime.
The Patriots have other guys who can pass rush and they do have 21 sacks on the season, which ranks them ninth in the NFL, but they will be without the services of outside linebacker/defensive end Chandler Jones, their absolute best pass rusher outside. Jones has contributed four and a half sacks to the overall total, and who knows how many other times he contributed indirectly to the total by chasing opposing quarterbacks into a teammate's waiting arms. The Patriots are going to have to find a way to replace Jones' pressure or it's going to be a long day for them on defense. Rob Ninkovich, Akeem Ayers, Dominique Easley, the spotlight is going to be on those guys to show up big time Sunday and create disruptions in the backfield for Manning.
2. Will Broncos ride the running game?
Ronnie Hillman has rushed for over 100 yards in two of his last three games and averaged over five yards per carry in two of those games. Oh, in case you forgot, the last three teams the Broncos faced were the Jets, 49ers and the Chargers. All three of those teams' defenses are usually pretty damn good against the run. If he were a video game character, there'd be a fiery aura all around his body right now because the boy has been hot lately.
The Patriots have not been all that great at stopping the run this year, ranking 25th in the league in running yards allowed per game. Having linebacker Jerod Mayo out for the season with a knee injury hasn't helped them get any better in that area either. There is also a chance that, lacking a pure pass rusher with Jones out, the Patriots' other defensive linemen will focus so hard on trying to get their pass rush going that they will open up running lanes inside.
Those are all good reasons to pound Hillman right at them on Sunday, but there's still a chance the Broncos won't go that route. The question, as usual, is how long will Manning be willing to ride the running game on a day where he knows his defense is facing a high powered offense as well? Will he be willing to take a backseat in a game billed as "Brady vs Manning?" If you are a Broncos fan you should hope so, because the Patriots secondary is very talented and will probably be in tight coverage most of the game. If Peyton is hell bent on throwing the ball without forcing the Patriots to respect the run first, that could go veeeery badly for him and for the team as well.
If he does allow Hillman to get going, then that should force the Patriots to get a safety involved near the line of scrimmage which will make Manning's life that much easier when he does decide to throw the ball. I actually voiced similar thoughts about the Patriots riding their running game ahead of them facing the Broncos in the AFC Championship game earlier this year. Unfortunately for Patriots fans, it turned out to be a beautiful day in Denver which prompted the Patriots to try to win the game almost exclusively through the air.
Remember how that turned out?
3. Will the Patriots have another dynamic duo on offense?
Let's just be real about this, the Broncos are going to find ways to score. That means the Patriots are going to have to find ways to do the same. They aren't likely to score 51 points again this week against the Broncos, but they're probably going to have to score at least 30 points to have a chance to win. That means New England is going to need similar productivity from the skill position guys as they had against the Bears. At least try to score 51 again. Put simply, they're going to need another dynamic duo in the passing game that can help push the ball down the field in a hurry.
It doesn't have to be Brandon Lafell and Rob Gronkowski again, but that particular duo would probably provide the best outcome possible if they did lead the team in catches and yards again. For one, it would mean that the Patriots were having success attacking different levels of the Broncos pass defense. At the same time, you could substitute a guy like recently acquired Tim Wright, who has some big play ability, or Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola or hell, even Aaron Dobson, and and get a win with them leading the way as well. To me, the Broncos secondary isn't all that intimidating aside from Aqib Talib. They do have a monstrous pass rush, but if Brady has time, his receivers should be able to get open.
Any of those guys can go out and have a big game against the Broncos, but just remember its going to take at least two guys going off on Sunday. If the Patriots don't have two guys with over 100 yards receiving and at least a touchdown apiece, I just don't see how they will be able to keep up with the Broncos' hailstorm of touchdowns currently forecast for Gillette Stadium around 4:30 p.m. ET this Sunday.