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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Today, only the game matters
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady shakes hands with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning following their November 2012 game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 31-21. (Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports)
Today isn't about what happened a decade ago, or how it will look a decade from now. It isn't about how Peyton Manning has performed against Bill Belichick, or how he compares to Tom Brady. Just like it isn't about the players who are injured on each side, or about what happened this season, or last week, or when these same teams met just eight Sundays ago.
What's encouraging for the Patriots is that their two best efforts of the season to this point may have come over the past three contests, first in a road win at Baltimore, then in last week's divisional round against Indianapolis. But aside, maybe, from some lingering confidence, that matters little right now.
It all starts again this afternoon, from 0-0, which is why the question isn't whether Belichick has been able to confuse and frustrate Manning in the past, it's whether he can do so today. It's not whether Brady is better than Manning, it's whether he can be better today by recognizing what the defense presents and making the proper decisions whether to run or pass.
Because, at this point, today is all that matters.
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UNDERRATED: Wes Welker. He's not the player he was in New England, after a couple of concussions this season, and in the six games he's played since the start of November he has only 29 catches for 261 yards. But he has scored 11 touchdowns as a Bronco, and he remains a player who could hurt the Patriots if they overemphasize Eric Decker and the Thomases - Julius and Demaryius - in the passing game.
OVERRATED: The Patriots' identity as a running offense. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley have emerged as a big strength running behind an offensive line that's playing well, though the brilliance of Brady is being able to take advantage of what the defense presents. Thus, don't be surprised if the Pats gladly go to the air if the Broncos load the box today. "As long as we're scoring points we're happy," tackle Logan Mankins said. "If we're throwing the ball well we're happy, if we're running the ball well we're happy - as long as we score."
KEEP AN EYE ON...: Danny Amendola. If the Broncos do load up against the run, Amendola could be a huge factor. Denver's top priority from a coverage perspective will likely be Julian Edelman, which - with Harris' injury - could leave Amendola with opportunities to make plays on the outside, particularly in play-action.
KEY MATCHUP: Julius Thomas vs. Jamie Collins. The Patriots' rookie linebacker was excellent in the divisional round against Colts tight end Coby Fleener, and he could be the one charged with handling the former basketball player. If he can do a good enough job with little need for help, the benefit could be huge for the Pats defense.
STAT OF THE WEEK: In their three losses this season, the Broncos are 16 for 43 in converting third downs (37 percent). In wins, they're 88 for 175 (50.2 percent).
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.