It wasn't long ago that two top veteran quarterbacks appeared headed for yet another showdown and with much on the line. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were supposed to lead their respective undefeated squads and vie for AFC supremacy in the 17th career meeting between the future Hall of Famers.
But the 39-year-old Manning’s body broke down before Week 11, and now Brady and the New England Patriots (10-0) can all but sew up the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed against quarterback Brock Osweiler and the Denver Broncos (8-2) in a “Sunday Night Football” matchup from Mile High.
Denver first-year head coach Gary Kubiak named Osweiler the starter for the second straight week while Manning continues to recover from a torn plantar fascia and rib injury. Manning flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Monday for a second opinion on his left foot, and his future for the rest of the season and his career remain unclear.
But the Broncos are moving forward with Osweiler after he helped snapped their two-game losing streak in Week 11 with a 17-15 road victory over Chicago. He went 20-for-27 for 250 yards and two touchdowns, but more importantly didn’t commit any turnovers, a major issue responsible for Denver’s previous slide and Manning’s benching in favor of the 25-year-old Osweiler.
Denver is now third in the conference behind Cincinnati, and thanks to Osweiler’s steady play, along with the Bengals second straight loss, the Broncos could move up the playoff standings by week’s end.
Yet odds makers have pegged the Patriots as 5.5-point road favorites, perhaps due to their incredible 10-game winning streak and consistent play. It also helps that head coach Bill Belichick has had great success against quarterbacks making their first start against New England, with a 79-23 record since 2001.
Still, the Patriots have shown some vulnerability the last two weeks. Brady was nearly picked off in the closing stages of Week 11’s 27-26 victory over the New York Giants, and New England required a 54-yard boot from kicker Stephen Gostkowski with one second remaining. Fast-forward to Monday night against AFC East rival Buffalo, Brady took a beating and didn’t lead a touchdown drive until the final seconds of the second half. Brady was sacked just once by the Bills, but took another 10 hits in the pocket.
Posting a season-low 51.3 completion percentage, Brady might have taken too much time trying to find his receivers with his No. 1 option Julian Edelman out for upwards of six weeks with a broken foot. Danny Amendola stepped up with nine receptions for 117 yards off 12 targets while tight end Rob Gronkowski was limited to two catches for 37 yards, both his lowest outputs of the year.
Amendola, however, came up with a knee injury in the third quarter against the Bills. He tried to return a punt later, but eventually left the game and will reportedly undergo an MRI exam on Tuesday to determine the severity of the injury.
Though Amendola’s is status unclear, injuries might finally catch up with New England. The Patriots have sent 13 players to injured reserve this season, including breakout running back Dion Lewis and offensive line Nate Solder, limiting Brady’s protection and weapons as the season enters the final six-game stretch.
Betting Odds: New England -5.5 via VegasInsider.com
Over/under: 45 points
Prediction: New England over Denver, 20-17