Fans get another chance to gauge the relative greatness of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning when the quarterbacks meet for the 16th time.
Brady will be analyzing something more important.
The New England Patriots star will have his eyes on an improved Denver Broncos defense that could test his limited skills at escaping the pass rush on Sunday.
The Broncos (6-1) are the only team with two players having at least seven sacks — linebacker Von Miller with nine and defensive end DeMarcus Ware with seven.
"They just tee off on the quarterback. They've got every move. They've got the speed, speed-to-power," Brady said Wednesday. "They've got the spin moves. They run the games. It's a big challenge for our offensive line."
It would have been a much bigger challenge earlier in the season when the line was in flux as coach Bill Belichick sought the right combination to clear space for runners and protect Brady.
The Patriots (6-2) were 2-2 in the first four games and Brady was sacked nine times. In the last four, they're 4-0 and Brady has been sacked just four times. The current front line of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, rookie center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has jelled.
"We've had some growing pains that we're all trying to get used to earlier," Brady said. "Offensive lines, typically, the longer they play together the better they get because they do develop a lot of trust in the guy next to them. The offensive line really is a metaphor for an offense and a team. Everyone has to complement each other."
Brady is 10-5 against Manning, including the postseason. But the last time they faced each other, Manning and the Broncos were better. He completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-16 win in last season's AFC championship game.
During the 2013 regular season, the Patriots had their biggest comeback in history. They beat the Broncos in Foxborough 34-31 in overtime after trailing 24-0 at halftime.
In the offseason, the Broncos improved their defense by adding Ware from Dallas, former New England cornerback Aqib Talib and former Cleveland safety T.J. Ward.
"I feel like they're the best team in the NFL right now," Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "They've got a very solid offense, a very, very solid defense, great rushers. It's a very good team. So we've got to be ready, be prepared and bring all we've got or we'll get beat."
The Broncos have allowed the fourth fewest yards per game in the NFL and the fewest yards rushing. In the last four games, opponents have averaged just 258.8 yards and 47.8 yards rushing.
In their last game, a 35-21 win over the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos held Philip Rivers to 245 yards passing, two interceptions and three touchdowns.
In his last four games, Brady has been spectacular, passing for 1,268 with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Why the improvement after a slow start?
"I feel like I'm the same every week," he said. "Some weeks it goes better than others, but I feel like my approach is always the same. Statistics may not be the same, but I try to bring the same level of intensity and energy, and I think I've always tried to be really consistent."
Playing against talented cornerbacks in practice has helped, he said, Talib last year and Darrelle Revis this year.
"Ultimately, the better players you have as a unit, I think everybody improves," Brady said. "We've got a good defense to go against, so, hopefully, that's really helped our offense."
He had one of the best games of his 15-year career last Sunday, completing 30 of 35 passes for 354 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in a 51-23 rout. But that was against the Chicago Bears and a defense without key injured players.
He faces a much tougher challenge against the Broncos.
"They've had a lot of guys who have played really well defensively," Brady said, "some good young linebackers, and then one of the best (defensive) lines in the league. There's a reason why they're one of the best teams, and we're going to need to be at our best."
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