By Jason Keidel
When the New England Patriots play the Denver Broncos on Sunday, it will feel like the latest entry into the sprawling archive of a high-end football rivalry. Or perhaps it’s more the residue of the rivalry between Tom Brady and whomever Peyton Manning played for, with the Broncos replacing the Colts over the last few years of his glittering career.
But you might be surprised to learn that the Broncos had given Tom Brady and Bill Belichick fits long before Manning made Denver essential again.
Since 2001, the two teams have played each other 16 times, and it’s Denver, not New England, with the winning record (9-7), including playoff games. Out of their last five games, two have been decided in overtime, while a third — last year’s AFC title game — was decided by two points. And while Peyton Manning started under center that game, he was more ornamental than ominous, with Von Miller and Denver’s thunderous defense bowling over everyone on their way to Super Bowl 50.
Like so many of the their battles over the last 15 years, this iteration is essential. The Patriots (11-2) are, once again, considered the AFC chalk to stroll to the Super Bowl, while Denver (8-5) is clinging to playoff life in the ornery AFC West, which features two teams with 10-3 records, in the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.
Predictably, the Patriots average more total yards, passing yards and rushing yards than the Broncos. Though he missed the first four games of the season, the final carnage from Deflategate, Brady is a legitimate MVP candidate, leading the world in QBR (83.0) and passer rating (113.6). Though Broncos QB Trevor Siemian started the season under center, Brady still has more completions, yards, and touchdowns. Brady’s stats are simply obscene, with 22 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
Though he can’t possibly lead the league in any aggregate statistic, he is second in the NFL in passing yards per game (321), just one yard behind Drew Brees, third in completion percentage (68.5) and second in yards per attempt (8.46).
But Siemian hasn’t been horrible. Considering he was a long-shot to make an NFL roster as a seventh-round draft pick from Northwestern, eternal Big Ten doormats, his 16 TD and 7 INT are respectable. But after a 4-0 start to the season, the Broncos are 3-4, their last loss an offensive eyesore at Tennessee, where the Broncos scored just 10 points against a Titans defense that hardly reminds anyone of the ’85 Bears.
By contrast, the Patriots have been maddeningly consistent, if not robotic. They lost just one game sans Brady, and have lost just once since his return. It led to absurd assertions that the Pats are just as good with or without Brady, that the Pats are the quintessential system team, with one player, even one some argue is the greatest in history, just a cog in a football machine. Brady isn’t a reason, but the reason New England is third in the league in points scored (349), and likely would be first had he played all 13 games.
So this is a classic case of strength vs. strength, with the Pats’ pyrotechnic offense bumping into Denver’s granite defense. The Broncos are third in total yards allowed (310.7), and first by far in passing yards allowed (183.5). If they have a weakness on that side of the ball, it’s against the run, where they rank a surprising 28th (127.2). So perhaps fantasy owners still in their respective playoffs might be wise to start LeGarrette Blount, who has already rushed for more than 1,000 yards and a robust 14 TD.
But a Broncos-Pats matchup transcends the stat sheet. Whether Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler or Peyton Manning start under center, the Broncos seem to wield some form of gridiron Kryptonite over the Patriots. You’d be challenged to find any club boasting a winning record against the iconic tandem of Brady and Belichick. In a strict sense of the standings, the Broncos need this game more. And they are at home, in the corporate-branded building we all call Mile High.
In a league that trades on parity, a Broncos win would be good for business. It would add to the yearly playoff anarchy, where teams joust for seeding, leaving others seething, and just maybe ending with a playoff rematch between these two monolithic clubs in January.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.