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What to watch for in Broncos vs. Patriots

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Tom Brady and Peyton Manning seemingly never change. But the teams around them are dramatically different than when the Broncos summarily dispatched the Patriots in last season's AFC Championship.

With that in mind, here's what to watch for in Sunday's 16th meeting between Manning and Brady:

New England's offensive pace: The Patriots have broken out more no-huddle looks each week this season. Early in the second half against Chicago, they played at a breakneck pace that was reminiscent of their tempo in the 2011-2012 seasons. Perhaps they were practicing for this week's matchup against Denver?

The Broncos' stout run defense and terrific pass rush could be neutralized if they aren't allowed to substitute. The Patriots' no-huddle tendencies speak to their increasing confidence in their offensive personnel. As we discussed Friday on NFL NOW, their pass protection has settled down after an ugly start to the season. More importantly, their new puzzle pieces (Brandon LaFell, Tim Wright, Danny Amendola) know the system better. The return to dominance by Rob Gronkowski is the most important factor here. He creates the biggest mismatches, and the team's two tight-end sets with Gronk and Wright are effective in a hurry-up because the Patriots are equally adept at calling runs or passes.

Ronnie Hillman's carry totals: Bill Belichick never does the same thing twice, but the Patriots essentially begged Manning to check to running plays last year in their regular season matchup. he obliged, and the Patriots eventually pulled off an insane second-half comeback with the help of a Wes Welker punt return mishap. New England's run defense has looked shaky ever since linebacker Jerod Mayo got injured, so the Patriots will have to pick their poison on defense. Hillman, unlike Montee Ball or Knowshon Moreno a year ago, has the speed to turn any play into a home run.

The weather: Nasty conditions can only help the Patriots. Manning relies on touch and accuracy, and no longer has the arm strength to drive the ball down the field if it's windy as expected. (Even if Belichick isn't buying what the weathermen are selling.) Patriots cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis would love nothing more than to play bump-and-run coverage without the threat of being beat over the top. Anything that helps slow down the Broncos' loaded offense is a plus for the Patriots. Consider that Jay Cutler is probably the best quarterback they've faced this season. Really. With that in mind ...

New England's pass rush: How can this Patriots group make Manning uncomfortable? Without their best pass rusher in Chandler Jones, New England has no defenders that can regularly win one-on-one matchups. Their best pass rusher now is Rob Ninkovich, and no defensive coordinator is game-planning to take him away. Belichick might have to get creative sending extra rushers and hope for the best in the back end.

Denver's dynamic duo: The Broncos don't need to send extra pressure at Brady, because they have the best pass-rushing duo in the league: Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Miller is playing as well as any defensive player in football not named J.J. Watt. Patriots pillars Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder both struggled early in the season at tackle, but they have improved over the last month. Sunday will be the ultimate test for both players, because New England needs their offense to carry them on Sunday. The defense just hopes to survive.

What's at stake: If Denver wins in New England, the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC might already be over. The Broncos also have a win over Indianapolis, and it's hard to imagine the Broncos coughing up those advantages. This looks like the best team in the league, so the Patriots need to win at home for any hope of keeping up with them.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews every Week 9 game and recaps the Saints' one-sided TNF win over the Panthers. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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