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Broncos at Patriots preview: Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski, Peyton Manning and more

Tired of the Manning-Brady storyline? So are we. Let's break down some football, shall we?

Jared Wickerham

Belichick and complementary football

I was enamored with this video breakdown by Bill Belichick, something the Patriots website apparently does weekly, where he detailed a number of specific plays that gave the Patriots 21 unanswered points in 57 seconds against the Bears last week. What struck me most was the fact that all three phases of football came into play.

The Patriots' special teams gunner Matt Slater took a terrific angle on one kick return to pin the Bears back deep, while their own punt returner Julian Edelman did a great job on giving Tom Brady good field position (thanks to a no-quit play by Jonas Gray). On offense, Gray was given a great block by Rob Gronkowski and ran with it, and a few plays later, the play action opening gave Tom Brady a big window to hit Brandon LaFell (LaFell would score against on-on-one coverage on a go route a series later).  On defense, the Patriots blitzed their nickelback but still got pressure from Akeem Ayers and company, who were able to sack Jay Cutler two plays in a row. Later, the strip-sacked Cutler for a fumble recovery touchdown, a play that probably wouldn't have resulted in six points if they hadn't pinned the Bears back on special teams to begin with.

"It was, again, a great sequence of big plays in all three phases of the game," Belichick said. "Offense, special teams, defense, turnover, and just being able to score 21 points in a minute. That really changed the complexion of the game."

None of these big plays were made by particularly big-named players, but Belichick has his team so well-coached and well-disciplined that everyone made the most of the situations presented to them, particularly when it came to blocking for one another in surprise moments in all three phases. The Denver Broncos will need to match that discipline on Sunday.

O-line, Gronk led to Brady revival

Gronkowski will get his catches, but holding him to 6- and 7-yard gains remains critical.

Pats Pulpit told us that Tom Brady is behind the Patriots' 4-0 streak since starting the season 2-2. Well there are reasons to Brady's success, too; the Patriots shuffled their offensive line throughout the season, but they seem to be clicking now. Oh, and Rob Gronkowski is a beast, writes ESPN's Mike Reiss.

It was difficult to evaluate Brady in the first four weeks of the season because he was under so much duress. So I'd say the main difference since that time has been better protection, which has given the offense a chance to find a bit of an identity; they are an attack that leans toward multiple tight ends and two-back groupings. And make no mistake, the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski has been a big part of it, too. He was still being eased into the mix in the first four games of the season and he has since hit top form. What a difference that has made. Brady's arm strength and mental acumen have not wavered. I think it's most accurate to say that that the parts around him are playing better.

Bracketing Gronk

Rob Gronkowski

Stew Milne - USA Today Sports

While the Broncos could get a little crazy with the way they slow down Rob Gronkowski, it's far more likely they'll need to bracket Gronk with the likes of Brandon Marshall and T.J. WardTroy Renck writes.

If the Broncos want their best matchup on Rob Gronkowski, athlete to athlete, Von Miller would drop back into coverage. Perhaps he does it a few times on underneath routes, but having Miller chasing Gronk past 10 yards is misguided. More than likely, the Broncos will bracket Gronkowski, using linebacker Brandon Marshall with safety help over the top. Gronkowski will get his catches, but holding him to 6- and 7-yard gains remains critical.

How the Patriots will replace Chandler Jones

Chandler Jones is the Patriots' best pass rusher, but he's been ruled out for Sunday's contest, leaving them to again rely on a combination of Dominique Easley, Akeem Ayers and Zach Moore to make up for his pass rush production. There's reason for cautious optimism, writes's Oliver Thomas.

The utilization of an unproven trio spoke to Jones' ability to play both outside linebacker along a three-man line, as well as defensive end and tackle along a four-man line. It spoke to the Patriots' lack of solidified pass rush on the outskirts of the defense. But it also spoke to the notion that the 6'5", 265-pounder's absence was not realized in the 51-23 box score versus Chicago.

Patriots pass defense no joke

The Patriots have that dangerous +11 turnover ratio we discussed in Elevated Stats, but their pass defense as a whole is one of the top-ranked units in the league, as Cecil Lammey notes.

The Patriots have the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL, only allowing an average of 210.9 passing yards per game. Even though the Patriots don't allow many passing yards, they have given up 18 passing scores to date. They have nabbed eight interceptions in 2014 (tied for seventh-best), and the Patriots have racked up 21 sacks (tied for ninth-best in the NFL) as a team.

Adds SB Nation's Stephen White --

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.

Clearly, Peyton will have his work cut out for him, perhaps like he hasn't so far this season. It opens up the possibility for Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson to attack New England's 25th-ranked rush defense head-on and set up the play-action for Peyton, testing the discipline of Dont'a Hightower over the middle.

Broncos must be relentless

The Broncos had no trouble getting to Tom Brady last year - in fact, in two games, they sacked him an impressive five times. But their 24-point halftime lead a year ago didn't last, thanks to a lot of Belichickian complementary football, failures on the Broncos' part to protect the football, and a lack of pass rush in the second half.  In fact, all three sacks on Brady in their November contest came in the first 24 minutes; the Broncos didn't take down Brady once more for the remaining 36 minutes of football.

That's because Belichick is a master of in-game and in-season adjustments, something the Broncos need to account for this time around. They did in January. Just read (with a big smile on your face) this two-paragraph recap of the AFC Championship Game from the Boston Globe.

In all three phases, as they were in January, the Broncos will have to be smart, disciplined, and relentless. It'll be a much tougher task against a healthier Patriots team in Foxboro.

Manning threw for exactly 400 yards, the first time he has ever reached that number against Belichick, while the Broncos gained 507 yards, the most against the Patriots since Belichick arrived as head coach in 2000. As a defensive coach, he hadn't allowed this many yards since Week 1 in 1998, when he was the Jets' defensive coordinator.

The Broncos held the ball for 35:44 as the Patriots forced zero turnovers. The Broncos converted 7 of their first 10 third-down opportunities, punted once and scored on six straight possessions. Even more notably, the Pats didn't so much as lay a finger on Manning, sacking him zero times and hitting him zero times.

That type of production from Manning against New England is particularly atypical, especially in Foxboro, and the Patriots will have a healthy Darrelle Revis to help take away one of Manning's primary weapons each play.

In all three phases, as they were in January, the Broncos will have to be smart, disciplined, and relentless. It'll be a much tougher task against a healthier Patriots team in Foxboro.


The Broncos and Patriots are the two hottest teams in the NFL. They are each riding NFL-best four-game win streaks. They boast the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month and the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Month, respectively. They boast future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

This Sunday, Manning and Brady will complete a regular season's worth of games against one another. Like the 2014 season as a whole, Sunday's game in Foxboro should be one of the season's best.