As Gregg Rosenthal pointed out on Thursday's "Around the League Podcast," the Patriots opted for a unique approach against the Broncos in New England's come-from-behind win over Denver back in Week 12.
Angling to smother the deep ball, Bill Belichick consistently employed a two-deep safety shell, a strategy that kept a cap on Peyton Manning's production. The Broncos quarterback finished with just 150 yards, a season low for Manning and his most paltry output since 2008.
Manning wisely countered by unleashing a Broncos run game that went at New England with a whopping 48 attempts for 280 yards, with 224 of those coming from Knowshon Moreno. In hindsight, the Patriots willingly traded a beating on the ground to prevent a scorching through the air.
Consider that Manning averaged 342.3 yards per start this season and was held to fewer than 300 just four times all year. Only the Patriots kept him to fewer than 200, using an approach that reminded me of what the Ravens unveiled in last year's playoff win over Denver.
In that divisional round tilt, Baltimore planted safety Ed Reed in deep center field for the entire game. The Ravens, in essence, dared Manning to test them deep, but Peyton didn't bite, instead dialing up a dink-and-dunk approach that, according to cornerback Corey Graham, gave Baltimore confidence.
"Graham said that the Ravens' defensive backs became more brazen as the game went on, since they weren't being challenged deep," NFL Media's Steve Wyche wrote after the game. "As the possessions increased in importance, it seemed as if Denver was more intent on moving the chains than taking chances."
Manning's arm strength arguably played a role in that Ravens game, but that won't be an issue Sunday. Peyton is throwing the ball as well as he has all year, and Denver has shown an increase in vertical passing looks over the second half of the season.
The talk all week has centered on New England's new ground-and-pound attack, but the matchup we'll be watching is Bill Belichick's defense -- namely, his safeties -- against Manning. Peyton knows he's up against a once-in-a-generation strategist in New England's coach, one reason he called Bill the "best" he's ever faced and the "greatest coach of all time."
Just one more reason we can't wait for this game to get underway.