USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lindsay Jones was gracious enough to answer some questions for us about the Denver Broncos, a team she covered for 4 1/2 years while at the Denver Post until October 2012.
Consider it a view from the other side.
Follow Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
1. Outside of the obvious subtractions on defense with Chris Harris and Von Miller being out, what changes should Patriots fans expect on Sunday?
Those are two significant losses for the Broncos defense, though Denver has proven it can play well without Miller this season. The Broncos went 6-0 without him to start the year, and are 2-0 in games since he suffered the torn ACL in the second-to-last game of the regular season. That said, perhaps the two best games Miller has played over the previous two seasons both came against the New England Patriots. The Chris Harris injury is more interesting because he had been the Broncos’ most consistent, and often best, defensive back this season, and he had played more defensive snaps than anyone else. We expect that Harris’s absence will mean a bigger role for Champ Bailey, who had been playing only about half of Denver’s defensive snaps over the past three games as he worked his way back from the foot injury that had bothered him all year.
Offensively, the biggest change for the Broncos since the last time they played New England is the return of tight end Julius Thomas, who has emerged as a star this year. While the addition of Wes Welker certainly upgraded the Broncos’ receiving corps, you could argue that Thomas has truly been the X-factor for Denver’s offense. Jacob Tamme had a nice game against the Patriots in November, but Thomas is a game-changer. Just look at how Manning went to Thomas – not Welker, not Demaryius Thomas, not Eric Decker – for three big third-down conversions last week against San Diego, including the third-and-17 in the fourth quarter.
2. There is a strong impression among fans that Bill Belichick has Peyton Manning’s number. John Fox’s number, too. Is there any truth to that perspective?
I would imagine that a lot of that is driven by the win-loss records, and it’s hard to argue with that. Belichick for years has challenged Manning unlike any other opposing coach, and the respect Manning has for Belichick was obvious this week when he said Belichick will go down as the best coach in NFL history. What makes these games so fun is that it is the mental side of the game that has always separated Manning from so many of his peers, and Belichick is the one coach who has consistently been able to drive him nuts with some sort of new game plan or coverage scheme that Manning either hasn’t seen or wasn’t ready for.
I think it would be fair to say the Broncos were outcoached by the Patriots in the 2012 game in Foxborough, when the Pats unveiled that super high-tempo offense and Denver’s defense just couldn’t keep up. We need to remember, too, that Fox wasn’t on the sideline for the teams’ earlier game this season. That was one of the four games he missed while recovering from heart surgery.
3. As far as numbers go, Wes Welker has had another fantastic season. How has his play changed following his two concussions? Has his role diminished after his return?
Welker missed the final three games of the regular season after suffering that second concussion, and it is fair to debate if he returned too quickly from the first one. He was asked that question earlier this week and dismissed it. His role was not diminished at all in his return to the lineup last week against San Diego, and the Broncos spent much of the game in their three-WR package with him. He caught his 11th TD of the season in that game, so it’s obvious that Manning is still looking for him in the red zone. But perhaps as important as Welker’s production when he’s in the lineup is the attention he draws from opposing defenses and what that means for his teammates Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas.
4. When the game is over, which player will fans come to know that they didn’t before?
I don’t think Julius Thomas is much of a surprise to anyone in the NFL right now, so I’ll go with someone on defense. Second-year linebacker Danny Trevathan is one of just two Broncos to start every game this season, and of the guys they have left, might be the one most capable of making a game-changing type of play. He’s the guy who intercepted Tony Romo to seal Denver’s win in Dallas in early October, and forced fumbles in games against the Patriots and Chiefs in November. For the Broncos to have a chance, they will need to at some point take the ball away from Tom Brady.
5. The Broncos will win Sunday if …
As much fun as Manning-Brady is, so much of the pressure to win this game for the Broncos should be on their defense. Denver has allowed only one 100-yard rusher this year (Ryan Mathews for San Diego in Week 15). They cannot afford to let Brady dictate the pace of the game as he has done so many times recently against the Broncos – notably that 2012 game, and the third quarter of the game in November. That said, Manning and the Broncos offense need to score more than they did last week against San Diego, when Manning threw an interception in the end zone (his first red zone pick of the year) and missed a field goal. That won’t work against Brady.