FOR ALL the talk surrounding the caliber of weapons at the disposal of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the fight suddenly seems a bit fairer as the two all-time quarterbacks ready for the 16th meeting in their running epic of a rivalry.
Now that Rob Gronkowski appears to be at full strength, the Patriots have a tight end who is at least as good, if not better, than the Broncos’ Julius Thomas.
Coming off his 11-catches-on-11-targets performance last week against the Bears, New England’s Brandon LaFell might not be quite as good as Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders, but he’s not too far behind.
And while much was made of the Pats losing Wes Welker before last season, at this point in time, Julian Edelman is all in all more dangerous in the slot than the receiver who has caught more balls than anybody in New England’s franchise history.
So, especially if Shane Vereen is given the slight advantage over the Broncos’ assortment of running backs in terms of catching the ball out of the backfield, the teams, in truth, match up pretty even in terms of options.
Until we factor in Demaryius Thomas.
And that is where Denver gains a big advantage —a 6-foot-3, 229-pound advantage. An advantage that constitutes the difference between each side, and could well be the difference between the teams on Sunday evening if the Patriots can’t figure out the proper way to keep the ball away from No. 88.
“You’re talking about a big, physical guy that can get off the line of scrimmage, can get down field, has a big catch radius, can go up and get the ball, has extremely strong hands, and then certainly does an outstanding job after the catch of being able to run and gain yardage and not be taken down by the first defender,” Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said this week. “Whether it’s a stiff arm or just his physical running style, to be able to break those tackles and turn those plays, some of them might be 1- or 2- or 3- or 5-yard routes, and turn them into extremely big plays down field, 40-, 50-yard gains.”
Indeed, Thomas ranks second in the league with four catches of more than 40 yards, and fourth with a dozen grabs that have gained at least 20 yards. And while he’s got the speed to stretch defenses vertically, it’s telling that of his 767 receiving yards through seven games, 45 percent of it — 342 yards — has come after the catch.
Detroit’s Golden Tate is the only NFL receiver who has gained more yards with the ball in his hand this season, while nobody at any position is averaging more than Thomas’ 109.6 yards per game. That includes a 226-yard effort against the Cardinals that kicked off four straight 100-yard games in October, and also included a 171-yard performance against the 49ers team that ranks eighth-stingiest in pass defense.
He also caught two touchdowns in that tilt, bringing him to six for the year, and indicating the nightmare a player of that size and skill can pose near the goal line — not just on fade routes and jump balls, but taking the ball in his hands and muscling it over the goal line.
“Certainly when you get to the red area you can see where his run-after-catch ability shows up,” Patricia said. “They get him the ball out in space and he can certainly hit that high gear very fast and take it to the end zone.
“Demaryius Thomas is obviously a very big, physical, strong wide receiver.”
The Patriots should know that as well as anyone, not just because of the 180-yard night he had against them in 2012, or because of the seven catches and 134 yards he compiled in last year’s AFC championship game. But because it was New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels who brought him to Denver in the first place.
As the Broncos’ head coach, McDaniels made a trade with the Patriots to move up and select Thomas with the 22nd pick of the 2010 draft. The selection didn’t quite pay off for McDaniels, who was fired before Thomas became even a 600-yard receiver.
But for all that’s been made of the Broncos loading up to surround the 38-year-old Manning with weapons, it certainly had to help that when the future Hall of Famer was choosing his team after getting cut by the Colts, there was a physical talent like Thomas already on the roster in Denver. And, in turn, it’s certainly no coincidence that Thomas is on pace for his third straight 1,400-yard season since Manning’s arrival.
How the Patriots try to cut into that pace remains to be seen, though the most likely scenario would seem to be that Patricia and Bill Belichick assign Thomas to cornerback Darrelle Revis, and fill in the rest from there. Revis was excellent in covering the Bears’ big receivers last week, and the Pats used Aqib Talib to hold Thomas in check during last year’s regular season meeting between the teams. It wasn’t until Talib was injured that Thomas really exploded in the AFC title game.
That’ll be one of the dozens of subplots to be followed as the game unfolds, along with the returns of Talib and Welker; Julius Thomas vs. Pats linebacker Jamie Collins; the play of Denver’s ramped-up defense; Gronkowski playing against T.J. Ward, the safety who took him out last season; Sanders competing against the team that tried to sign him away from Pittsburgh in 2013; LaFell playing against the team that wanted him this past offseason; Manning vs. Belichick; and, of course, the highlight, Manning vs. Brady.
But all those could well wind up as incidental sidebars if the Patriots don’t figure out how to do one thing first: Don’t let the difference between them be the difference maker. And stop Demaryius Thomas.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.