Alec Shane: Multiple Defensive Looks
In past games against a Manning-led offense, both during his time in Indy as well as Denver, it has taken Peyton the better part of a half to figure out the defenses that Belichick is throwing at him. However, sooner or later, Manning is going to figure out how to best exploit that defense, and because of that it's more important this season than ever to constantly change up the packages and schemes and always keep Peyton guessing. There is simply no denying that Denver's offense has significantly more talent than New England's defense, so to simply match up head-to-head is going to result in failure. Keep Manning guessing, disguise coverages, stay disciplined on the hard counts, and find unique ways to generate pressure. If New England can do that, I like their chances.
Greg Knopping: Tom Brady's Arm
By this point, you've probably been exhausted by all of the Tom Brady - Peyton Manning talk this week. It's been overkill, seriously. We all know how great the Broncos offense is this year and how Peyton Manning is playing like he's 27, not 37. And we all know how Tom Brady has done more with less in 2013 than any other year in his career. We get it, seriously. But here I am, beating this drum one more time: this game will come down to the performance of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. It's no secret that the Patriots have become a power running team over the last several weeks, especially in last week's Divisional Playoff victory over the Colts. And while the run attack was prolific in that game, it was Tom Brady who made several critical third down throws to move the chains. It might sound crazy, but the Broncos could be begging Tom Brady to beat them on Sunday by focusing on stopping the run. If that happens, Brady will likely be asked to do even more than he did last week. If he's on top of his game, that could be the difference between the Patriots winning and losing.
Richard Hill: Linebacker Production
We know who our defensive line is: two great defensive ends, a surprisingly strong space eater in the middle, and a tackle who thrives on pressure, but struggles against the run. We know who out secondary is. A healthy Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Devin McCourty are near lockdown levels, while Kyle Arrington is strong in the slot and Steve Gregory is a serviceable leader at strong safety. Who are the linebackers? Do we get early season Dont'a Hightower, the one who was benched against Denver last time, or the game changer of the past five weeks? And will Jamie Collins follow up a tremendous breaking out party with another strong showing, or will he be exposed as a rookie by Julius Thomas? The Patriots defense will be as good as it's linebackers. Bank it.
Kevin O'Connor: Red Zone Success
The Patriots have to convert their opportunities in/near the red zone into touchdowns, not field goals, in order to beat the Broncos. Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady have had plenty of time working on improving their red area success after losing star tight end Rob Gronkowski, and now it's time for them to show that they can finish off drives entirely. Interestingly, there is a another wrinkle in terms of the importance of touchdowns as opposed to field goals: If punter Ryan Allen is out on Sunday, it puts more of a burden on Brady to be the holder on field goals and extra points. Would he have the same chemistry holding the ball for a potential 38-yard field goal? I don't have that confidence, and if the Patriots could go the entire game without attempting a single field goal, and are instead scoring touchdowns, I would say there's a good chance they win the game.
What do you see as the biggest key to a Patriots victory tomorrow?