Here are the 10 premiere matchups in Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game:
Bill Belichick against Peyton Manning: It’s another edition of one of the NFL’s greatest matchups. And while it may not have the same juice that it had a decade or so ago, this is the battle that will ultimately decide who wins this game. As Andy Benoit writes here, expect Belichick and the Patriots to do a lot of disguising of coverages in hopes of slowing down Manning and the Broncos passing attack. Overall, the two have met 15 times, with Belichick holding a 9-6 edge on Manning. However, it’s worth mentioning that while Belichick held the early edge -- his teams came out on top in seven of the first eight games -- Manning is 5-2 in his last seven against a Belichick-coached teams, including two wins in the last three games.
Quarterback Tom Brady against cornerback Champ Bailey: Another classic duel that will be revisited on Sunday. While Bailey isn’t the same world-class corner he was a few seasons ago, he still remains among the league’s elite ... at least, according to Bill Belichick, who gave him the verbal equivalent of a full-body massage on Friday. Belichick said Bailey is “one of the few corners in the league that really can match up against anybody. He matches up against the Andre Johnsons of the world, the big, strong, physical, fast guys. Then he’ll match up against quick, real good route running, quick receivers, guys like that too. [It] doesn’t really make any difference.” Expect Bailey to spend a lot of time matched up against Lloyd -- the two are familiar with each other from Lloyd’s stint in Denver, and are clearly amped about a possible head-to-head matchup this week.
Left tackle Nate Solder against edge rusher Elvis Dumervil: After a rocky preseason, Solder has had a very good start to the 2012 campaign -- he’s allowed just one sack through the first four games. And while he’s tied with teammates Tom Brady and Ryan Wendell for most offensive snaps played this season, like his two teammates, he has yet to be flagged for a single penalty. He’ll get one of the best in the NFL this week in Dumervil, who has three sacks and a remarkable 18 hurries through four games off the edge for the Broncos. Look for Rob Gronkowski -- who has been excellent as a blocker this season -- or another tight end to provide support as a blocker.
Defensive end Chandler Jones against left tackle Ryan Clady: Jones is coming off a stretch where he was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month. (In four games -- all starts -- he had 17 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.) He leads the team in quarterback hits with three, and while there have been some slipups, he has played about as well as you could expect a rookie to play over the course of his first four games in the league. He’ll be going up against Clady, the Broncos finest pass blocker (PFF has him graded out at an astounding +10 when it comes to pass protection, best in the NFL), and a left tackle who has committed just one penalty in 297 offensive snaps this season. While he won’t be asked to block Jones alone for a portion of the day (the Broncos will likely rely on an extra tight end to help from time to time), the 6-foot-6, 316-pounder out of Boise State should provide Jones with his finest test of the young season.
Cornerback Devin McCourty against wide receiver Eric Decker: McCourty bounced back from a rough second half against the Ravens to post a solid performance against the Bills, coming away with two picks, five solo tackles (one for a loss) and two passes defensed. It was the latest chapter in what is developing into a pretty good season for McCourty, who is now closer to the form he flashed as a rookie as opposed to a rough sophomore season. While he won’t be matched in single coverage against Decker for the entire afternoon, look for these two to lock up frequently. Decker leads the Broncos with 24 catches on the season, and he’s second in receiving yards to Demaryius Thomas (325 to 322). He’s not the deep threat (that’s Thomas) but he’s reliable, consistent and keeps the chains moving -- 12 of his 24 catches have gone for a first down.
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork against center Dan Koppen: Two old warriors who went head-to-head in practice for close to a decade will now be on opposite sides, as Koppen is slated to get his first start for the Broncos against his old team after starting center J.D. Walton was placed on IR this week after injuring his ankle in last week’s win over the Raiders. Meanwhile, Wilfork will look to build on his performance last week against the Bills where he recovered a key fumble late in the first half and delivered a teeth-rattling shot on Buffalo wide receiver Donald Jones in the second half.
Running backs Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden against the Denver run defense: Don’t expect Ridley, Bolden and the rest of the Patriots to run for 247 yards against the Broncos, but they should have some opportunities to pick up good yards on the ground against Denver. With the understanding that the best way to beat Peyton Manning is to keep him off the field, expect the Patriots to try and utilize the running game (as well as some short passes) to try and grind the clock down and control the tempo. New England would love to put together some extended drives while grinding down the Broncos run defense. That will fall on the shoulders of Ridley and Bolden. (When it comes to moving the chains, it will be a fascinating battle -- as our friend Nuggetpalooza states, the Patriots have gone three-and-out only three times this season, the fewest in the league. Meanwhile, the Broncos’ defense has forced their opponents into 15 three-and-outs, the most in the league.)
Linebacker Brandon Spikes against running back Willis McGahee: By his own estimation, the leader of New England’s run defense has been inconsistent over the course of the season, but he had a real edge to his game last weekend against the Bills, forcing a pair of fumbles and generally creating havoc when it came to slowing down the Buffalo run game. (One thing to note when it comes to Spikes -- don’t expect him to play as many snaps as he did last week, particularly on passing downs. Because of the injury to fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower, he was on the field against the Bills in passing situations, and was frequently exposed. This week, even if Hightower doesn’t play all that much, the Patriots will dole out some of those snaps on passing downs to Bobby Carpenter, who returned to New England this week.) Denver isn’t the run-first team it was last season, but when they do run it, it’s McGahee who gets the ball. He leads the Broncos in every major rushing category, including carries (69), rushing yards (325) yards per carry (4.7) and touchdowns (three).
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich against right tackle Orlando Franklin: After a week of tweaking his game, Ninko got his groove back last weekend against the Bills, coming away with seven tackles (four solo), as well as his first sack of the season and a forced fumble. He’ll be on the opposite edge from Jones, and while Jones is usually lined up as the right defensive end, Jones and Ninkovich flip-flopped on occasional last week against the Bills, providing the Buffalo offensive line with a few different looks. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the two flip sides again for a handful of plays this week.
Patriots’ safeties against tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen: After a strong start in the preseason, New England’s starting safety combo of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory have stumbled at times over the course of the 2012 season, particularly last week where they had issues matching up with Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler. With Gregory out this week because of a hip injury, it’ll be rookie Tavon Wilson who will see a bump in playing time next to Chung. They’ll have to deal with a tight end combo that has teamed to form a nice security blanket for Manning. It’s no Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez pairing, but Manning is familiar with Tamme (15 catches, 125 yards, one TD) from their days together in Indianapolis, while Dreessen provides depth in the passing game, and is rated by our pals at Pro Football Focus as the second-best pass-blocking tight end in the league (they have him graded out at +1.5 on the season).