It’s time to begin a new chapter in the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning annals, and personally I’m glad that the scheduling gods lined things up just so it would happen. There are only so many times these two legendary quarterbacks will face each other again so we should take a moment to enjoy what we’re seeing.
Of course having Peyton on the Broncos certainly gives it a new flavor and the fact that the Patriots torched Denver in the playoffs has to give New England an underlying confidence.
Still, the Pats have not seen many quarterbacks with the skill of Manning in recent seasons so he should provide an excellent test for a secondary that remains the only major question mark for this 2012 edition of the Pats.
Even if a lot of Manning’s balls wobble, they still get to where they need to be.
Here are my Five Keys for the Pats to heehaw the Donkeys.
1. Secondary in Sync: The defensive line and linebackers are really starting to come into their own but Peyton knows how to get rid of the ball so you can’t count on the pass rush to be what slows him down. So it comes down to is Pats secondary all being on the same page, disguising their coverages, and most of all not making mental errors. The pass defense is giving up more deep passes per game than they have in a decade plus, so it’s hard not to look at the safety play first and foremost. Devin McCourty, despite a few bad plays, has really bounced back. Now the rest of them need to pick it up. Kyle Arrington finally has been able to move inside to star in nickel packages, a spot he seemingly is perfect for. He’s been in the system for a while now, yet his inconsistent play is continues. Sterling Moore surpassed Ras-I Dowling as the outside corner in nickel and dime. Ras-I remains an enigma more baffling (due to his 32nd overall draft slot) than Shawn “Crazy Legs” Crable. The Patriots pass defense could prove a lot this week, or they could show they’re the same old squad that gives up passing yards by the bushel.
2. Take our “Ridlen” (h/t @DanteSterling): Last week’s emergence of the run game was extremely positive, though I wouldn’t call the Pats a ground and pound team just yet. They won’t be afraid to run when opponents play them with DB-laden defenses, but whether or not they can exert their will, like they did against the Bills, against a top notch front like Houston or Baltimore remains to be seen. With Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil they’d love nothing more than to be able to pin back their ears and get after Tom Brady in the pocket, so you’ve got to get them on their heels a bit. The Pats had 280 yards rushing in their two games against the Broncos last year, so “Ridlen” and Woodhead could really do some damage this year, and if they do look out.
3. Brady goes deep to Lloyd: While the run game should be effective the Broncos can be susceptible to the pass as well, and the deep ball especially. As Greg Bedard has been saying all week, the shots down the field should be there, just like they were there for the Texans, now it’s just a matter of Brady and Lloyd finally connecting. This is the last missing ingredient on offense, a couple caught long balls would add another dynamic for opposing defenses to worry about. We haven’t seen a 50+ yard touchdown this year. It’s time for that to change. And you can’t tell me Lloyd and McDaniels would enjoy anything more.
4. Finish him!: As we’ve seen in the last five Pats games against him you have to finish Peyton Manning, and finishing is something the Pats have struggled with in recent years. So regardless of a lead or deficit, it’s going to take four quarters, and ultimately pounding the final nail in the coffin when the opportunity is there. Whether that’s picking up a gotta-have-it first down, or getting a critical third down stop, players will have to step up and end the game on the Patriots terms. If they do not they could face yet another horrible last minute defeat that we’re all too familiar with, especially against the Manning brothers.
5. Win: As always this is all that matters, especially in a conference game against an opponent you could see again down the road. There is little doubt the Patriots should be able to move the ball, the question is whether their defense can make enough stops to put some distance in between them and Manning. Personally I relish the chance to have one of our greatest weaknesses tested by an excellent quarterback. He might still not be full capacity, but he’s a lot better than most of the schmoes we’ve seen around here lately.
If the Pats want to get back to the Super Bowl they’re going to have to knock off some combination of Matt Schaub, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, or even Peyton again, and getting lucky again with a sub-par pass defense is unlikely to happen for a second year in a row. The time for the secondary to start improving is now, and getting a win against an elite passer would be a big first step and a confidence-boosting sticker on the helmet.