FOXBORO -- It’s not always advisable to go too deeply inside the numbers looking for statistical patterns when you talk about the Patriots -- New England is a game-plan team that has the ability to use multiple looks on both sides of the ball. But there is some consistency when you look at how Bill Belichick has tried to take down Peyton Manning over the years, and certain things that should be recognizable when the Patriots meet the Broncos Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
Controlling the tone and tempo of the game is always paramount, but even moreso when Manning is involved. He can’t beat you if he’s not on the field, and so your wisest course of action is the run the ball, manage the clock with some sustained, deflating drives and win time of possession. If you can do that, you have a formula for success, no matter who the New England defensive backs are.
Consider the history between Belichick and Manning:
• In 2012, New England ran the ball an average of 33 times a game on the season. Against Manning and the Broncos last October, the Patriots ran the ball 54 times for a whopping 251 yards, controlling the pace and tempo. New England held a 36:24 edge when it came to time of possession, with three scoring drives running at least five minutes and four drives going at least 12 plays. The end result was a 31-21 win over Denver.
• In 2010 against Manning and the Colts, the Patriots ran the ball 34 times for 168 yards -- their third-highest yardage output on the ground for the season. (On the year, New England averaged 28 carries a game.) In addition, in that contest, the Patriots had two drives of 6:26 or more, and just barely won the time of possession battle, 31:29. New England held on for a 31-28 win.
• When the two teams met in 2009, the numbers were pretty much the same as the regular-season averages, at least when it came to running the ball. Against the Colts, the Patriots ran the ball 28 times for 113 yards -- that season, they averaged 29 carries a game and 120 rushing yards per game. New England held the edge in terms of time of possession, 35:25. There were no extended scoring drives in that one -- the longest offensive series for the Patriots that night went 4:52. (A closer look at the boxscore for that night reveals that one of the things that might have insured a New England loss was the fact that they didn’t run the ball enough -- despite having a 17-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, they called just six designed runs in the final quarter.)
• The 2008 meeting didn’t have Brady, which was one of the reasons the numbers in the running game got a bounce that year. (The 513 carries as a team that season were the most since Belichick took over – the 2012 team would surpass that with 523 rushes.) But by any metric, it was still a ball control game for New England: The Patriots had four drives of 13 plays or more, all of which went for 6:18 or longer, and ran the ball 32 times for 140 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t enough -- New England ended up losing, 18-15.
• In 2007, there wasn’t a lot of running the ball, but the Patriots did a nice job controlling the clock: 28 carries for 105 yards. New England had three drives of at least 10 plays, all of which went for 5:30 or more in a 24-20 win in the RCA Dome. (It is important to mention that this game marked only one of four games over the second half of the season where New England rushed for more than 100 yards, as the Patriots became a team far more reliant on the passing game down the stretch.)
• The Patriots lost their way in 2005 and 2006 when they dropped three straight to Manning’s Colts, but the best example of ball control as a way to slow down Peyton came in the 2004 divisional playoffs, when New England upended a scalding-hot Colts team, 20-3. That afternoon, led by Corey Dillon, the Patriots ran for 210 yards on 39 carries (the run-pass split was 39-27), and had three plays of 14 drives or more, all of which lasted at least 7:24.
The last two seasons, the Broncos have had a pretty stout run defense -- in 2012, they allowed 91.1 yards rushing yards per game, third in the league, while their 3.6 yards per carry allowed was second-best in the NFL. (That makes last year’s 251 yards on the ground against the Broncos all the more impressive, frankly. For Denver, it was a season-high in terms of yards allowed.) In 2013, Denver is yielding an average of 3.7 yards per carry, fifth in the league. The Broncos are also fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game at 92.7 yards per game.
“It’s a lot of the same guys from last year. I think we’re quite a bit different though, so it’s a little bit of a different matchup from that sense,” Brady said.
“We know what they’re capable of. They’ve got some big guys up front, they’ve got some athletic guys like Shaun Phillips and Von [Miller] [who] are great pass rushers. [They have] really athletic linebackers and some experienced guys in the secondary. So, it’s a good group. It’s a good group.”
There are new personnel elements in place for the Patriots, but with the return of Shane Vereen, as well as the between-the-tackles oomph brought by Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, it appears they could be capable of doing it again. They’ve certainly done well against other elite run defenses: they’ve already faced four of the best run defenses in the league, and rushed for more than that team has allowed on average in each one of those games. One thing we do know -- if the Patriots are able to hit at least 100 yards rushing as a team, they have a good shot at beating anyone. They’re 5-1 on the year when they hit the century mark on the ground.
(One other thing to be mindful of when you’re talking about game-planning for the Broncos: Last season, the Patriots went heavy on the no-huddle against Denver -- they were in no-huddle for 44 of their 89 total snaps, a season-high rate of 49 percent. New England has been reticent to lean on the no-huddle this season -- on the year, the Patriots have operated in a no-huddle on 105 of their 700 plays from scrimmage, or 7 percent of the time. However, they went heavy on the no-huddle earlier in the season when they faced the Saints, a Rob Ryan-led defense. They did the same when they knocked off the Cowboys in 2012 another defense where Ryan was the DC. Bottom line is that if they’re going to go heavy on the no-huddle against another team this season, chances are it’s going to be the Broncos.)
In theory, you want Manning to have to throw the football to try and beat you. This isn’t always the most advisable course of action -- the Patriots have frittered away several big leads against the Colts because of a furious Manning comeback, combined with their inability, or flat-out refusal, to run the ball in the second half. (The 2006 AFC title game, the 4th and 2 game in 2009, the 2010 contest and last year’s game come to mind as obvious instances where New England had trouble holding on to an early lead.)
In the end, while much of the talk leading up to Patriots-Broncos this weekend is about the Brady-Manning matchup, when it comes to gauging New England’s offensive priorities against Manning, history tells us that the play of the Patriots running game is just as important as the guy under center.