4. Manning’s knee will be a topic of much attention.
Manning’s right knee was heavily padded last week against Kansas City, and he played effectively through whatever ill effects he was still experiencing from this hit the week before against Jacksonville. He also wasn’t knocked down one time against the Chiefs, and it’ll be up to Denver’s O-line to keep that streak intact against a weak Patriots pass rush. (More on that below.)
5. There will be no scrambling.
Brady and Manning have a combined 1,502 dropbacks this season and have only scrambled with the ball four times. Four. And all of those are attributed to Brady. Russell Wilson vs. RGIII, this matchup is not.
That’s not to say Manning won’t throw in the occasional naked bootleg when you least expect one.
6. Brady will squeeze every ounce of available ability from his receiving corps.
After Wes Welker’s departure to Denver, Brady’s arsenal of weapons has been slow to rebuild. His most lethal target, Rob Gronkowski, was out for the first third of the season and is finally getting into every-week game shape, but Brady’s season-long numbers remain grim: 12th in passing yards, 27th in completion percentage, and his receivers have dropped more balls than every team but one. (See: Lions, Detroit.) On the plus side, Brady has only thrown seven picks on 380 attempts.
7. Manning will dare the Patriots to blitz him.
Agains the blitz this season, Manning has completed 68% of his passes, thrown for 12 TDs against only one pick, and maintained a 127.8 QB rating — higher than in all other passing situations. With a pass rush that ranks third-to-last in the league in effectiveness, the Patriots would be foolish to even feign any attempt at pressuring Manning and would be wise to instead refocus personnel on Welker (who’s recovering from a concussion) and tight end Julius Thomas (who’s playing through a gimpy knee). But if Bill Belichick gets brave enough, Manning could make him pay.
Brady, for his part, has not historically been a fan of the Broncos pressuring him.
9. Manning will fall short of his season average of 3.4 TD passes per game.
With the best passer rating in the league for any QB with more than 400 snaps — sorry, Nick Foles! — Manning has been burning through opposing defenses with ruthless abandon. But the Patriots’ pass coverage, ranked 10th overall by ProFootballFocus, is no slouch, and Manning only averages 2.1 TD passes per game against Brady anyway. Plus, Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio might also look to get the running game (enter rookie Montee Ball, who had two TDs against the Chiefs last week) more action.
10. Win or lose, Manning’s forehead mark will be pronounced.
11. But Tom Brady will win.
Brady has a 9-4 career record against Manning, is playing at home on Sunday (where he’s 5-0 this season), and will have Gronkowski, whose mere presence continues to anchor an otherwise shaky passing game. A 15th-ranked Broncos pass rush will have to play beyond its level to keep pressure on Brady. The question is whether Denver has the personnel to do so. Outlook, for now, is hazy. Advantage New England.
12. And they’ll tersely acknowledge one another’s achievements in a chilling postgame “handshake” where each man barely breaks stride.
Never not awkward.