AP Sports Writer
---- — FOXBOROUGH — Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots. All in front of a prime-time audience.
A marquee matchup, for sure.
But for the players and coaches, Sunday night’s game is just another obstacle on the way to the postseason.
“It’s one where TV obviously wants to have it on,” Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “It’s great for the theater and all that, but it really comes down to two football teams.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn’t one to get distracted by all the hype, either. And that’s rubbed off on his players.
“Our guys are pretty locked in all the time,” Brady said. “That’s the thing coach Belichick always does a great job of. He’s pretty relentless. He never takes it easy on the guys and says, ‘All right, this week is kind of an easier week for us.’ Or ‘It’s a relatively unimportant game.’ Everything is always, ‘We have to put our max into it. We have to get our best out of everybody.’ “
Especially on Sunday night.
Denver (9-1) leads the NFL with 39.8 points per game, three more than the league record set by the Patriots in 2007. Manning has thrown 34 touchdown passes, a pace that would give him 54 and break the mark of 50 set by Brady in 2007.
He has plenty of outstanding receivers with former Patriot Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas. Welker suffered a concussion in last Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the last unbeaten team.
“You can’t give up any big plays,” Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “You can’t just let some guy run down the middle of the field and have (Manning) throw an easy touchdown.”
New England (7-3) has a bunch of new receivers and Brady is having a subpar season. Still, he’s 9-4 against Denver and led the Patriots to a franchise-record 35 first downs in last year’s 31-21 win over the Broncos.
Manning isn’t reminiscing about all those games between two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
“Every game is just so critical in the conference right now,” he said, “so it’s hard to think about anything else, really, besides that.”
Five things to watch for in Broncos-Patriots:
POCKET OF PROTECTION: Despite worries about Manning’s taped and tender ankles, he has only been sacked 13 times, the second fewest of any quarterback who has started all his team’s games. Only Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, with 12 sacks, has been dropped fewer times. Last week, the Chiefs, who have 36 sacks, didn’t trap Manning in Denver’s win that left both teams tied for the AFC West lead.
“It’s always a good deal when your quarterback doesn’t get touched,” left tackle Chris Clark said. “We just keep our heads down and keep blocking — don’t look at the scoreboard, don’t look at the time, keep blocking your guy — like tunnel vision.”
NICKED-UP DEFENSES: The Patriots have a two-game lead in the weak AFC East, but must face the NFL’s best offense without some top defenders and with others not at full strength. Tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo are on injured reserve. Starting defensive backs Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory all could be sidelined or playing with injuries.
The Broncos put free safety Rahim Moore on injured reserve Monday (with a designation to return) after he had surgery on his left leg.
SAFE AT HOME: Fans at Gillette Stadium have had plenty to cheer. The Patriots are 5-0 at home this year and 35-3 there over the last 38 regular-season games. But for the first time since 2005, they’re underdogs at home. Still, they didn’t have to make another trip during a short week of practice after their 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers last Monday night. That loss ended when officials waved off a defensive pass interference call that would have given the Patriots one last play from the Panthers 1-yard line.
BETTER VS. BRADY: The Broncos are better prepared to face Brady’s offense than last year, when it rolled to a 31-7 lead before winning by 10 points. Afterward, the Broncos benched middle linebacker Joe Mays and they’ve won 20 of 22 since, including playoffs. Now, Wesley Woodyard handles that position.
“Wood’s able to do a lot better at being the quarterback of the defense for us,” cornerback Chris Harris said. “When they do get us on the run in the no-huddle, Wood is able to just call out a play on defense for us and that’s something that’s big ... when we play the Patriots.”
HEALTHY OFFENSE: The Patriots’ offense is the healthiest it’s been all season with Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen all back. Gronkowski has 24 catches in four games after missing the first six. Amendola has 13 in three games after missing four of the first seven. Vereen had eight catches against Carolina after missing eight games.
“It’s exciting to get everybody back on the field at the same time,” Vereen said. “I think we’ll be able to put a better product on the field.”
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