I've been thinking a lot about a prediction on this game and as the week has worn on, I find myself becoming more and more confident in a Denver win.
I think it will be a close game and just like last week, the biggest key will be Manning's Offense avoiding turnovers and letting the Defense take care of business. It's kind of an obvious statement, but if Peyton throws several picks or Denver loses some fumbles, NE will probably win. If they protect the ball, I like Denver with a final score around 26-24.
Here's my reasoning:
General Home Field Advantage:
NE under Brady is only 2-6 in Denver. The altitude plays a part, but so does the loud crowd when NE is trying to run a hurry up attack and communicate. Natural grass as opposed to turf is another factor which I'll detail below.
Denver On Defense:
(This is wordy since it's the key match up in the game, IMO)
Football Outsiders ranks Denver as the year's #1 Defense. Not only that, but they are tied for 3rd toughest schedule when accounting for the strength of the offenses they played. So they faced a gauntlet schedule and fared better than any other team.
Denver will be very hard to run against and I don't think NE will even try it much.
NE's passing offense has all of its key players back (we can't say the entire offense is healthy since your top 2 RBs are out, of course) and I expect several long drives and multiple TDs. That said, I expect Denver's D to rush 4 (Tom Brady, may I introduce you to a gentleman named Malik Von WareWolfe... Who am I kidding, there's little gentle about him) and then flood the flats in an attempt to disrupt NE's precision catch-and-run pass plays. This won't work every time, Edelman and Gronk will have some big plays along the way, but they are going to make things tough and Brady may need to hold the ball a little longer than he wants as receivers try to get open.
On the subject of getting open, I predict that Edelman will have a harder time getting open than he did last week. There are three reasons for my hunch: (a) Chris Harris Jr. is healed up significantly and will be covering him; Harris is possibly the best CB in the game at covering slot receivers (b) Edelman will be feeling more foot pain than he did last week when he played his first full speed game and went all out; 7 days later he could be more sore than he was after a long lay off and a gradual build up in workouts; if he can't cut and pivot without some pain, Harris will have a little more ease (but again, JE will make some plays, I'm not predicting he's a disaster (c) natural grass (more on that next).
A few days ago I saw an interesting couple of stats about NE playing on natural grass over the last few years. In the last 3 seasons and playoffs, NE's record playing on grass is 7-8. In addition, 4 of the 5 stadiums where Brady has a losing record in his career have natural grass (the fifth is SEA and that was only one game played). Those stadiums are Miami, KC, Carolina, and Denver and Brady's career numbers in those games is 10-17. Now, I'm sure a part of this is just the simple fact that it is harder to win on the road, but I also wonder if the precision passing attack that relies of timing and exact route running might be harder to execute on a surface that is not perfectly even like Modern turf surfaces are. Tomorrow might be a little muddy and there might be a little rain late in the game and I think NE will have some drives killed by failure to make the timing plays work. It won't keep NE out of the end zone, but it should lower the amount of drives where they score.
The game will probably be close in the 4th quarter and fatigue for NE due to the altitude will creep in as it often does.
All of those factors have me feeling confident that Denver's #1 Defense has what it takes to keep the team in the game and allow the offense to squeak by.
Denver On Offense:
No one mistakes this offense for the laser show Manning led a few years back. The passing game will not feature long completions or balls fit into triple coverage against all odds. Manning is not that guy. I expect to see the same approach employed last week vs Pitt: run the ball, employ a deliberate pace and minimize risk taking. Denver stalled out and had to settle for several redzone FGs last week (and many other games this year) and I expect to see that happen some tomorrow. But I think they will fare a bit better in both the run game and in converting TDs instead of FGs. Again, going by the Football Outsiders defensive rankings, Pitt had the #8 Defense and faced the 16th toughest schedule. In comparison, NE had the #15 Defense, but faced the 32nd (last place) toughest schedule.
I also suspect that Manning will be ready to shift into a hurry up attack in the event that NE builds a 2 score lead with time ticking. They never had to do that last week as the score was close all game, but if needed there is another gear. That gear may not work and will come with higher risk of turnovers, but if they're trailing, I expect to see a faster pace than what Manning has shown since coming back from the injury. That said, Denver's conservative offense succeeded vs Pitt and I think it will be able to do the same vs NE and the Denver Defense will handle the rest.
Special Teams is always an X-factor but kick-offs are seldom returned in Denver (easy to boom it past the EZ) and I'd say both squads have solid enough ST units to make that an predictable advantage either way.
Coaching favors the Pats. Kubiak has not shown any sign of ingenuity or creativity, but I think he's got the team focused and motivated much more successfully than John Fox did. The best case scenario for the Broncos when it comes to coaching is for the game plan to work and for there to be little need for big adjustments.
So, that took my 30 mins to type, and I feel better now.
I think Denver takes it tomorrow in a close contest and I'd say I'm feeling about 60/40 that I'm right.
Or maybe NE skullfucks them the way SEA did in the SB a few years ago. (Shrug)