FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Devin McCourty won’t allow himself to get caught up in Peyton Manning’s pre-snap antics on Sunday.
New England’s Pro Bowl safety can’t afford to. He’ll end up losing.
“I would say the chess game is pretty one-sided. It’s like being a kid going against a father in chess,” McCourty said of trying to anticipate Manning’s moves. “He’s a very smart quarterback. He knows what he wants to do. Most of the time he knows what the defense is in, so if what he had planned isn’t going to work, he’s going to get the offense in something else.
“You don’t want to try to overthink yourselves and really don’t want to try to outsmart Peyton Manning.”
It’s been quite some time since anybody has done that.
New England’s second-ranked passing defense gets its chance Sunday afternoon when Manning and the Denver Broncos (6-1) travel to Gillette Stadium for a midseason showdown with the Patriots (6-2).
Seven teams have tried to slow down Manning this season. None have succeeded. In Denver’s only loss, Seattle held Manning to 303 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
“One of the best quarterbacks in history we’ve got to face and he doesn’t make it easy. He wants to make sure they’re in the perfect play every snap,” said Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “We have to play an A-plus game to be successful. Anything other than that, we’re going to have problems.”
Just ask the Chargers, 49ers, Jets or Cardinals, Manning’s last four victims since his only loss of the year in the third game of the season.
Since then, he’s thrown 14 touchdown passes and sits near the top of league in almost every major passing category.
But what’s new?
“Obviously, he’s a great quarterback — the best quarterback I’ve coached against,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I see no weaknesses in his game.”
The 16-year veteran, who two weeks ago set the new standard for passing touchdowns in a career, has thrown for 2,134 yards and 22 touchdowns, tied with Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck for the league lead. He has completed 69 percent of his passes, the second-best rate in the league, and has been intercepted just three times while guiding the league’s highest-scoring offense at 32 points per game.
He faces perhaps his stiffest test of the season this week, though, as New England’s defense is yielding just 211 passing yards per game and is the only unit in the league not to allow a completion of more than 40 yards.
But as he typically does, Manning most likely will maneuver around that.
It helps that he has one of the league’s most dangerous receiving corps with Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas.
Mix in running back Ronnie Hillman and the Patriots defense is in for one of its tallest tasks of the year.
“Isn’t it the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL — last year and then you bring most of those weapons back this year and then add Emmanuel Sanders?” McCourty said. “I guess you can go back and forth and debate, but the offense is probably a little better than it was last year and it was easily the best offense in the NFL last year.”
Manning most definitely will make his checks at the line of scrimmage, reading the defense and screaming out audibles before almost every snap, but don’t expect McCourty or Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis to enter into a guessing game with the chess master.
“You’ve always got to be careful with thinking you know something, thinking you know a check,” McCourty said, “then next thing you know an 80-yard pass is over your head.”
And don’t think for one second that Manning has forgotten last season’s meeting at Gillette, when the Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead before falling 34-31 in overtime.
McCourty knows that Manning will try and replicate what worked in that first half and change what didn’t in the second.
“If you do something well, a team’s probably going to come back to it in some shape or form, maybe not the same exact look,” he said. “But you always want to know how a team hurt you, and I think even though it’s hard to get a good beat for it, you still want to watch the film and see what they’re doing.”