The stakes are typically high when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady square off and that will again be the case Sunday night when the Denver Broncos visit the New England Patriots. The Broncos are in the midst of a grueling three-game stretch, sandwiching a pair of games with AFC West co-leader Kansas City around Sunday’s matchup.
The Patriots, coming off a controversial last-second loss at Carolina, need a win to maintain any hopes of securing home field for a potential playoff matchup.
Brady is 9-4 in his career against Manning, who is on a record-setting pace for passing yards thanks to the addition of former New England wide receiver Wes Welker. In six seasons in New England, Welker amassed a staggering 672 receptions.
Welker, who is recovering from a concussion, was listed as probable for Sunday night’s game against the host New England Patriots.
“This is a big game for both teams so you have to expect their best players,” Brady said. “I’m sure all those guys will be ready to go.”
Interim coach Jack Del Rio said Friday that Welker passed every concussion test from independent neurologists, per the NFL’s mandated protocol for head injuries.
Welker was injured last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs and was cleared to practice Thursday. His listing as probable on the team’s injury report is a positive sign that he will play against his former team.
Also for the Broncos, tight end Julius Thomas (knee) and cornerback Champ Bailey (foot) were listed as questionable.
TV: 8:30 p.m. NBC.
ABOUT THE BRONCOS (9-1): Denver became the first team to put up more than 17 points against Kansas City and is averaging a league-high 39.8 points behind Manning, who has thrown for 34 TDs versus six interceptions. Welker leads the team with 61 receptions and his nine TDs are second to tight end Julius Thomas (10), who is questionable with a knee injury, but the Broncos also additional weapons in wideouts Demaryius Thomas (60 catches, 9 TDs) and Eric Decker (54 catches). Knowshon Moreno is a dual threat out of the backfield for Manning, but overlooked has been the recent play of Denver’s defense, which has yielded 19.3 points in its last three after giving up an average of 35.3 points in the previous three.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (7-3): New England fell two games behind the Chiefs and Broncos in the chase for the No. 1 seed after last week’s loss at Carolina that featured a reversed penalty call on the final play. Brady went four straight games without completing 60 percent of his passes, but he has raised his game the past two weeks with the return of a healthy tight end Rob Gronkowski and wideout Danny Amendola. Running back Shane Vereen had eight catches last week in his first game since the season opener, but the Patriots have serious issues on defense — their top three cornerbacks are hurt and they have already lost starting nose tackle Vince Wolfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season.
KEY MATCHUP: Broncos RBs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball vs. Patriots LBs Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower — The Patriots went from allowing 118.9 yards a game and 4.2 yards per carry with ILB Jerod Mayo to 136 yards a game and 4.3 yards a carry since he was injured — including 5.0 yards per rush over the past three games. Moreno had 27 carries last week and Ball scored twice. It was more than a show-me move by the Broncos, who look to re-establish the ground game as a reliable threat heading into the cold-weather games that lurk from now through the postseason.
GAME NOTES: Manning’s 3,572 yards are the most in history through the first 10 games of a season. … Brady is 4-6 lifetime against Denver but has won the last three, including a 45-10 rout in the playoffs in January 2012. … The weather could be a great equalizer, with temperatures below freezing and 20 mph winds forecast for the contest.