Even without Peyton Manning, the Broncos still have a fiery rivalry with the Patriots because of their quarterback
It’s a rare rivalry formed by teams in different divisions and separated by nearly 2,000 miles. The Broncos hate the New England Patriots, but in the same breath they share a mutual respect that surpasses their feelings for any other team.
For the previous four seasons, Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady highlighted the matchup with historical importance and games of the season. Manning is gone, but there are more than enough story lines to continue an intense rivalry between two of the AFC’s most consistent contenders.
“It’s more about the teams than Brady-Manning, because if Brady was somewhere else it’d still be Brady Manning. This rivalry is about the teams,” Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. “You got two historically great teams that have done a lot for the NFL, usually on top of the AFC, great coaches, great owners, great GMs. It just breeds opposition. It just breeds competition. It’s one of the great things about football.”
Quietly, the rivalry’s identity began to shift in 2015. As Manning’s skills deteriorated, there wasn’t much of a debate about who was the better quarterback. But the Broncos still maintained a strong stake in the competition because their defense continued to get the better of Brady.
The numbers that stick out are 2-7, Brady’s record in Denver over his career. He also has lost six of his past seven games in Denver, including games last season to Brock Osweiler and Manning.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Brady brushed off those road woes as the Broncos being a good team regardless of where they play, which has been true.
Denver has been a thorn in Brady’s side his whole career. The Broncos are the only team he has a losing record against, at 6-9. In his two losses last season, Brady completed just 51 percent of his passes, took seven sacks and had a 74.8 passer rating.
“No. 58 (Von Miller) on the other side of the ball is a lot more dangerous, and 94 (DeMarcus Ware), than the people in the crowd, so we’re going to have to do a good job handling all those guys up front,” Brady told New England reporters. “They’ve got a great rush group. They’ve got a great coverage group. They’re exceptional in a lot of ways, and they’ve been that way for a long time, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Brady’s expressive personality and attention to detail ensure he’s aware of those numbers. And Sunday is another chance for him to extinguish the “Brady can’t win in Denver” fire.
“We love it,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of Brady’s passion. “He leads us. When we see that, everyone knows how fired up he is and tries to match his intensity.”
Emotion aside, Denver’s defense isn’t the same unit that clobbered Brady last season. And Brady, at 39, may be playing some of the best football of his career. He’s a top MVP candidate, completing 68.5 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and two interceptions, despite being suspended for the first four games because of Deflategate.
“We love going against Brady,” Ward said. “He’s the best out there. So when we get the opportunity, it shows us where we’re at defensively. To stop him and Belichick’s scheme and the amount of different players they have … we thrive off those types of situations.”
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak added about Brady: “He’s exceptional. He’s on a mission since he’s been back. … You can just see how driven he is.”
The Broncos know Brady’s tendencies at this point, but that means little against a Belichick-coached team known for completely switching game plans depending on the opponent. Denver is wounded, particularly at linebacker, which is a bad sign against what Kubiak called the best team in the NFL. Denver will need to play one of its best games of the year defensively to beat New England.
Pressure appears to be the Broncos’ best weapon against Brady, forcing him to be mobile. Coverage on the back end is essential to forcing Brady to hold the ball and allowing the Broncos’ pass rushers to feast.
“I like hitting Tom Brady a little more than other quarterbacks,” outside linebacker Shane Ray said. “Between Tom and (San Diego quarterback) Philip Rivers, you can see how frustrated they get when they get hit and pressured.”
The opportunity is dire for the Broncos, who aren’t competing with the Patriots for home-field advantage as in previous years. Instead, at 8-5, they need wins just to make it to the playoffs.