NFL Preview - Denver (6-1) at New England (6-2) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The top of the NFL marquee will read Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady this week.
For the 16th time in their legendary careers the NFL's equivalent to Bird and Magic or perhaps Ali and Frazier will tangle on Sunday when the New England Patriots entertain the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium.
Brady has generally had the edge in the personal rivalry between the two, going 10-5 against Manning's Colts and now Broncos. Things have tightened up in the head-to-head battle over recent years, however, and Peyton has posted a 5-4 mark in his last nine matchups with Brady, including a 26-16 win in last season's AFC Championship Game.
Manning-Brady XVI will also mark the first game in NFL history where both starting QBs have earned 150-or-more regular-season wins.
"At the end of the day, it's Broncos versus Patriots," Denver head coach John Fox said, trying to downplay the personal issue.
Brady, though, understands how others will frame the game.
"Peyton has been a phenomenal player - so consistent and durable for a long period of time," Brady said. "We've had a great rivalry and this year is no different."
Indeed the best record in the AFC will be on the line as Manning's Broncos lead the AFC West with a 6-1 mark and Brady and Co, own the AFC East with a 6-2 record.
The Pats have won four straight overall, including last weekend's 51-23 drubbing of Chicago in which Brady threw touchdown passes on five of New England's first six drives.
Brady finished 30-of-35 for 354 yards in his best performance of the season. Rob Gronkowski had 149 yards on nine receptions and caught three of Brady's touchdown passes before leaving in the third quarter due to dehydration.
Brandon LaFell set career-highs with 11 receptions and 124 receiving yards and had a touchdown grab for New England, which extended its home winning streak to 13 games.
The Patriots scored three touchdowns in a 57-second span during a 31-point second quarter.
"It was good to see the whole team ready to go, playing with that kind of energy and execution," said New England coach Bill Belichick. "It was a pretty good day for us out there today. We'll have to turn this one around quickly and get ready for Denver."
The Broncos, meanwhile, are coming off a 35-21 Week 8 win over AFC West-rival San Diego in which Manning threw three touchdown passes to Emmanuel Sanders.
Manning, the reigning and five-time NFL MVP who broke Brett Favre's record for most career touchdown passes the week prior against San Francisco, was back it, completing 25- of-35 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns against the Chargers to bring his career TD total to 513.
Sanders caught nine passes for 120 yards for Denver, which has also won four in a row. Demaryius Thomas caught eight passes for 105 yards.
"Every week we don't know where the ball is going to go," Sanders admitted. "The defense really dictates that and what Peyton is seeing."
Ronnie Hillman carried the ball 20 times for 109 yards and Juwan Thompson rushed for 24 yards and two scores on seven carries.
Denver leads its all-time series with the Pats by a 25-19 margin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Although Manning holds the advantage over Brady in raw numbers when the two clash, the Patriots have won eight of the 11 regular-season games in which the two superstars have faced each other and split four postseason meetings.
Brady has completed 249-of-364 passes for 2,790 yards with 23 TDs and 10 picks in his 11 regular-season efforts versus Manning-led teams with Peyton connecting on 267-of-421 for 3,147 yards with 27 TDs and 14 interceptions in those contests.
The postseason numbers are 85-of-136 for 890 yards with four TDs and two picks for Brady, and 109-for-179 for 1,224 and four TDs and six picks for Manning.
In other words, it's razor close between the two meaning the supporting casts are going to be the key to this one.
Brady is concerned with getting off to a fast start because Denver likes to play with the lead and pile on, unloading its pass rush on defense which features the explosive DeMarcus Ware and well as the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month Von Miller.
"They've played from ahead, which has been a great advantage for them all season," Brady said. "Hopefully we can get off to a fast start and make them play from behind for once, because you don't want to get behind these guys too much."
"(Miller and Ware) are as good as anybody," he continued. "They're just dominant, explosive players. One's got nine sacks, one's got seven sacks. They're seven games into the year and they're putting up record numbers. They're phenomenal players."
Manning is tied for the NFL lead with 22 TD passes and leads the league with a 119.0 passer rating. Sanders was his favorite target against San Diego and this week it may be back to Demaryius Thomas or Julius Thomas or Wes Welker or anyone else suiting up at a skill position for Denver.
"Peyton uses all of his options," Belichick said. "If they're open, he throws it to them."
Always a perfectionist, though, Manning is a bit upset that Denver ranks just sixth in the NFL in offense, amassing 398.4 yards per game.
"It's still early in the season," Manning said. "We're still trying to figure out some things that we're doing well and that we're not doing well."
The Patriots, on the other hand, may not have the horses they once had but remain relevant because of the stewardship at the top, namely Belichick and Brady.
After a slow start Brady has picked things up, winning AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for October after leading New England to a 4-0 record in the month and completing 100-of-144 passes for 1,268 yards with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The high-octane explosiveness probably isn't there any longer with the New England offense but Brady's ability to protect the football has helped generate a plus-11 turnover ratio, tops in the league
The Pats have also improved offensively over the pass four weeks due to the reemergence of their tight ends. New England got only 188 total yards from Gronkowski and Co. during their 2-2 start and 601 in four games since.
"Rob, he's a great target," Brady said. "He's got the size, speed. He's really become a great route runner himself. He's really been a real key part of our offense for as long as he's been here. He's effective on all downs but he's just a big, strong, physical presence and really smart football player."
Against Chicago, New England's top three targets -- LaFell, Gronkowski and Tim Wright -- were thrown at 27 times, resulting in a mind-numbing 27 catches.
Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, though, has significant talent at all three levels.
"They've got all pros at every level of defense," Brady said of the Broncos D. "They've got an incredible secondary that's playing great this year with a lot of interceptions, playing with a lot of confidence. Linebackers are all really fast and athletic and then they are one of the best D-lines in the NFL. They really force you to play with great execution."
The two narratives here are obviously Brady versus Manning and the fact that the Patriots have won 13 straight in Foxborough. But, this is about the supporting casts and Denver looks like it has a little too much talent on both sides of the ball.
"It's never just one guy," Fox said. "This is a team game. There are a lot of moving parts to offense, defense and the kicking game for that matter."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 28, Patriots 24