When the Broncos opened 1-4, who would have thought they would be only two games behind New England when they host the 10-3 Patriots this week? With the Broncos riding a six-game winning streak and the Patriots winners of five straight, something has to give here. History indicates Tom Brady (+35.7) will be challenged for his 11th victory. He’s 1-6 in his career against the Broncos, including a 20-17 overtime loss to Josh McDaniels and the Broncos in 2009.
The Patriots match up well with the Broncos. Their biggest flaw this season has been their inability to defend the pass—you know it’s bad when Julian Edelman is playing snaps on defense—averaging over 300 passing yards allowed per game. Of course, the Broncos don’t have the most developed passing game in the league, so their biggest weakness will be tough to expose for Denver. The Patriots’ defense is misleadingly efficient at keeping teams out of the end zone despite giving up over 400 yards per game, so Denver needs to capitalize on whatever opportunities they earn.
It’s hard to picture Tebowmania extending another week against a quality opponent like New England, but the Broncos have been counted out before and proved their doubters wrong. To beat the Patriots, Denver needs an inspired defensive effort. If it comes down to a shootout between Tim Tebow and Brady, the Broncos could find themselves out of the game quickly. Let’s take a look at three matchups that could determine whose streak comes to an end on Sunday.
Broncos Offensive Line vs. Patriots Defensive Line
Despite the Patriots’ weak secondary, the Broncos are likely to test their more proficient run defense. Denver will always prefer to favor the run if they can. The ground game couldn’t really get going against the Bears last week and the Broncos would have paid the price with a loss if not for Marion Barber. Against a Patriots defensive line that is very stout at the point of attack, the Broncos offensive line will need to win their matchups more often than not for the rushing attack to be successful. The Broncos rely on misdirection to create holes for their runners often and if they can’t give those plays time to develop, they could result in some tackles in the backfield.
Vince Wilfork (+8.6) may be the biggest concern for Denver’s offense as the Broncos’ interior offensive line is the softest part of the offense. Center J.D. Walton (-22.6) hasn’t progressed much from his rookie year and has struggled especially with bigger DTs like Tommy Kelly and Sione Pouha. It’s very likely that, in anticipation of Walton’s difficult matchup with Wilfork, the protection schemes will focus the guards’ attention inwards more often that outwards to take some of the pressure off of Walton. In that event, players such as Andre Carter (+23.6) could have opportunities to wreak havoc off the edge, be it in the run game or pass rush.
Broncos Pass Rush vs. Patriots Pass Protection
It’s probably safe to say if the Broncos win this game, it won’t be because they beat Brady in a shootout, but rather because they were able to contain Brady. Unless they’re going to hope Brady forgets how to throw a football, the only way they’re going to contain him is to keep him uncomfortable in the pocket. The Patriots are ranked ninth in our cumulative Pass Blocking Efficiency rating, and although part of that can be attributed to Brady’s ability to anticipate pressure and get the ball out before the pressure comes, the Patriots’ offensive line has done a good job in pass protection. Brian Waters (+19.1) still hasn’t given up double-digit pressures and no guard can boast a better cumulative pass blocking grade than Waters’ +14.5.
Elvis Dumervil (+7.1) and Von Miller (+57.1) have combined for exactly 100 total pressures, but they’ll be tasked with generating even more pass rush against the Patriots. The team has been able to get very little pressure outside of these two players and there’s a lot of pressure on them, ironically, to perform at a high level every week. All it takes is one game of Miller and Dumervil struggling for the Broncos’ defense to fall apart. Against a quarterback with more than enough ability to pick apart a blitzing defense, the Broncos’ sometimes blitz-happy defense will be in for a long day if they give Brady time to do just that.
Who’s Got Gronk?
Yes, Rob Gronkowski’s (+26.5) game has elevated to the point that he warrants his own section in this Three to Focus on. While Von Miller has set a new gold standard for outside linebackers, Gronkowski has done the same for the tight end position. His receiving ability is one thing, but Gronkowski’s cumulative run-blocking grade is better than any other tight end in the league as well. Only two wide receivers have more yards after catch than Gronkowski. That’s getting it done.
If the Broncos watched Gronkowski on film against the Redskins, they’re probably wondering the same thing we are: how can they cover this guy? Three weeks ago in San Diego, Denver did a decent job limiting Antonio Gates to his second-lowest yardage output of the season, although he did score a touchdown. Quinton Carter held Gates without a catch when he was covering him and could be used on Gronkowski sometimes, but nickel cornerback Chris Harris (+6.5) will probably be deployed whenever Gronkowski is lined up in the slot, which he did 60 times over the past two games. If Harris is used to cover Gronkowski, it will be quite a challenge for the 5’10” 190-pound cornerback to exert his usual physical presence on the 6’6” Gronkowski.