Here are the 10 matchups we’ll be looking for in Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Broncos.
Matt Light against Elvis Dumervil: A classic matchup. Light is having one of the best seasons of his 11-year career (he and Solder have done an excellent job against an intimidating group of edge rushers the previous three games), while Dumervil (7.5 sacks) and Von Miller (11.5 sacks) are the two guys who make the Denver pass rush go. According to Pro Football Focus, Light is tied for fourth among all starting left tackles when it comes to yielding sacks (three), If Light (who will get some help in pass blocking from Gronkowski before he starts into his pass routes) can keep Dumervil out of the New England backfield, it’ll give quarterback Tom Brady enough time to pick apart a blitz-happy Denver defense.
Nate Solder against Von Miller: Solder continues to hold up better than could be expected for a tackle in his first season in the league, and while there's a question as to whether or not it'll be Solder or Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, whoever is over there will face a big challenge this week while going up against one of the best young pass rushers in the league. Solder and Miller two have a history together: They knocked heads as collegians in Big 12 battles (Miller went to Texas A&M and Solder is a Colorado product) in 2008 and 2009, they trained together during the predraft period and both have acknowledged the other as their toughest collegiate opponent.
Rob Gronkowski against Quinton Carter: Carter, the Broncos free safety, spent much of the Denver-San Diego game matched up with Antonio Gates three weeks ago, and managed to hold Gates to six catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. While he won’t be expected to lock up Gronkowski the whole game by himself, the Broncos would be happy with a reasonable facsimile of that performance this week against Gronkowski (71 catches, 1,088 yards, 15 touchdowns). The big tight end has become such a matchup nightmare that when he’s held to less than seven catches and fewer than 100 yards, it’s considered a win for the defense.
Wes Welker against Champ Bailey: Two schools of thought here, even though Bailey will likely be also asked to help out on Gronkowski: one, Bailey has spent a good amount of time this season working in the slot, and two, other teams have moved their No.1 corners into the slot to try and defend Welker this season (think the Jets and Darrelle Revis). Welker started the season on a record pace, and while he’s fallen off slightly still remains Brady’s No. 1 go-to target when the Patriots have to move the chains. (Brady has targeted him 136 times this season; easily tops among all New England pass catchers.) Welker enters the game with 100 catches for 1,339 yards (both best in the league) and nine touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bailey is Denver’s second-best defender when it comes to pass coverage, as PFF has him grading out at +3.8 over 13 games.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis against the Denver run defense: It’s been a struggle the last month or so for Green-Ellis, who simply isn’t the same back he was at the start of the season. Whether it’s the recent toe injury, defensive schemes or a little of both, there’s been a significant dropoff in his production. (He’s rushed for 45 yards in a game just once over the last five contests.) Denver is simply average when it comes to stopping the run (the Broncos have yielded 124.2 rushing yards per game, 21st in the league), but has shown improvement over the last few weeks.
Bill Belichick against Tim Tebow: According to our pal Nuggetpalooza, Belichick is 27-3 since 2006 when facing a quarterback for the first time, and figures to throw something at Tebow on Sunday that the second-year quarterback hasn’t seen before. The big point of emphasis for the Patriots’ defenders this week is gap discipline and containment. Keeping Tebow (1,290 passing yards, 517 rushing yards) in the pocket and not allowing him to run free is a priority. Belichick mentioned several times this week that the Denver running attack has certain elements of the Wildcat, which New England faced when it went against Miami in 2008, and it’s likely that the Patriots used a lot of that old film when they began they prep work for Tebow and the Broncos.
Devin McCourty against Eric Decker: McCourty played what was likely his finest half of football all season in the second half of the Redskins game. He was aggressive, he was around the ball, and he would have gotten his first pick of the season if it weren’t for a questionable flag on Andre Carter for a hit on Rex Grossman. The Patriots can hope he’ll build on that Sunday against the Broncos and Decker, who is fast becoming Tebow’s go-to guy when Denver does throw the ball. Decker, a 6-foot-3, 218-pounder out of Minnesota in his second season, leads the Broncos with 42 catches on 87 targets to go along with 585 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. (All those totals are at least twice as many as the second-place receiver, DeMaryius Thomas.) The other side of this matchup will include New England cornerback Kyle Arrington against Thomas. Expect some mixing and matching as the game goes on depending on the situation.
The Patriots run defense against Willis McGahee: McGahee has found new life this season in Denver, as the 30-year-old has 199 carries for 920 yards (a 4.6 yards per carry average) and four touchdowns. Over the course of his career, McGahee has always been hit-or-miss against the Patriots: in seven career games against New England, he’s averaged 57 yards a game and 3.5 yards per carry. Last week aside (when the Patriots yielded 126 yards on 27 carries to multidimensional Washington rookie Roy Helu), the New England run defense has been competitive, allowing 107.3 yards per game, good for 13th in the league. Depending on the health of linebacker Brandon Spikes, he could play a role in run defense. In addition, expect Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher to provide run support as well.
Andre Carter against Ryan Clady: It’s not Tebow’s blind side, but when the Patriot have been able to get a sustained pass rush, it’s come from Carter. He broke a two-game sackless streak last week against the Redskins, and leads the team in sacks (10) and quarterback hits (22). He’ll be lined up against left tackle Clady, who is graded by PFF as Denver’s No. 1 pass blocker (they have him at +1.2 for the season). For all the talk of Solder going home to Colorado this week, Sunday will also mark a homecoming for Carter -- the defensive end’s father played for the Broncos, and Carter spent his formative years growing up in Colorado.
The Patriots slow starts against Denver’s fast finishes: For a team third in the league in scoring (the Patriots average 30.5 points per game), New England has had real trouble out of the gate. The Patriots’ offense has scored two first-quarter touchdowns over the last seven weeks, and average just 5.8 points per game in the first quarter this season, including three games where they haven’t put any points on the board at all in the first quarter. (More often than not, they’ve made up for it with big performances in the second and third quarter.) This is the case every week, but New England wants to start fast to avoid a close game down the stretch against the Broncos, especially in a place like Denver, which holds a tremendous home-field advantage. However, it’s even more imperative this week, considering the Broncos’ fourth-quarter numbers: Tebow has orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, four the last four weeks, and has the third-best passer rating in the fourth quarter this season (111). And while Tebow has gotten most of the credit for the Broncos’ comeback wins, some of that should go to kicker Matt Prater, who has kicked the game-winning field goal on the last play of regulation or in overtime four times in the last eight games, including three overtime game-winners.