, Newburyport, MA

November 21, 2013

Three things to watch in Pats-Broncos matchup

by Bill Burt
Staff writer

---- — First things first: When a very successful player, as in Wes Welker, leaves a place where he had so much success, it looks strange seeing that player in a different uniform.

To be honest, Welker looks like he’s always been a Denver Bronco, sort of like his quarterback, Peyton Manning (more on him later).

This Sunday Night Football game will be another classic at Gillette Stadium.

Here are three things to look for as Sunday at 8:30 p.m. couldn’t come sooner:

1. Welker’s conundrum

Everything about Wes Welker’s concussion last week against the Kansas City Chiefs is scary.

The fact that he went back into the game for one play soon afterward before leaving the game for good is one thing we must get answered.

The other is: Why would he even entertain the thought of playing against the New England Patriots on Sunday night?

Of course, I know the answer to the second part. He has been looking forward to this game since he signed with the Broncos in May. He is very bitter, maybe rightly so, about his departure from the Patriots and the way he was “treated” by coach Bill Belichick.

But concussions are not taken lightly any more. As we’ve heard and read a lot lately, players with “concussion syndrome” have done some bad things, a lot of times to themselves.

It was equally strange hearing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady say this yesterday, “He’s a tough guy so he’s played through everything. This is a big game for both teams so you have to expect their best players and I’m sure all those guys will be ready to go.”

Welker did not practice yesterday and was listed on the injury report as having a concussion and neck injury.

While it would be fun having Welker on the field, he can’t play, not if what we’ve heard and read is true, that he actually suffered a concussion.

2. Talib’s act

To be honest, I was very, very close to doing a story on Aqib Talib’s growth as a Patriot, that he seems to have turned the corner on his “shaky” past and really bought into the Patriot Way, whatever that actually is.

But then came Monday night against the Carolina Panthers.

Talib entered the game talking about how Panthers veteran receiver Steve Smith is a noted trash-talker, insinuating he will try to get inside the “diva” wide receiver’s head.

Well, guess what happened. Talib acted like a jerk. He acted like someone who cared more about a ridiculous personal battle than winning the game.

It was an embarrassment.

While Patriots coach Bill Belichick downplayed it somewhat, saying both Talib and Smith are noted for their competitiveness, there is no doubt the coach and Talib had a discussion about it.

Talib’s injury was another matter altogether. There appears to be a durability issue with these nagging injuries to his hip.

But his personal show was more like the Talib New Englanders hoped they weren’t getting.

He is one of the best five cover-cornerbacks in the league. He really is. The fact that at 6-foot-2, he can get to balls other cornerbacks can’t, is impressive.

We will be watching Talib closely the rest of 2013. A $40 million contract might hinge on it.

3. Back to the future

This truly is one of the great matchups in all of sports, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Sure, I get it, they don’t cover each other, but trust me, both understand the importance of beating the other.

While Brady usually gets the nod in this “body of work” comparison, because of the championships (three to one), Manning is the best pure passer ever.

What is striking about this season is how both quarterbacks have reverted to their former selves, from the early 2000s.

Brady’s numbers as no longer gaudy, as he is on pace for 22 TD passes (the lowest TD total since 2001) and 11 interceptions. Before you think, “That’s lousy,” think again. In Brady’s three Super Bowl winning seasons (‘01, ‘03, ‘04) he averaged 23 TD passes and 12 interceptions.

While we can agree Brady hasn’t been himself, he is playing more of a “team” game, which will no doubt do him justice (with some healthy players, of course), in January.

Manning, to the contrary, is on pace to top Brady’s NFL record 50 TD passes in 2007 (Manning, at 34, is slated to his 54) with 10 interceptions (Brady had 8 in 2007).

Manning is also the second rated passer, in terms of QB Rating, at 118.3 compared to Brady’s pedestrian 83.6, which has him 18th among NFL starting QBs.

The point is we’re back where we started with these two. Manning is lighting up the scoreboard. Brady is moving the chains.

And the other important factor: Both are winning.

While it seems every game this duo plays is a big one, this actually is a very big one. The Patriots become a threat to win a bye in the playoffs and possibly host Denver again in January as the Broncos have a tough tilt in Kansas City the following weekend.

Patriots remaining 2013 schedule Sun, Nov. 24 vs Denver 8:30 p.m. Sun, Dec. 1 @ Houston 1 p.m. Sun, Dec. 8 vs Cleveland 1 p.m. Sun, Dec. 15 @ Miami 1 p.m. Sun, Dec. 22 @Baltimore 8:30 p.m. Sun, Dec. 29 vs Buffalo 1 p.m.