FOXBORO -- Though many sets of eyes in New England will be glued to Denver's No. 83 coming out of the slot on Sunday night, Patriots defenders know that their pupils will have to be darting around in their sockets.
There are simply too many talented options in the Broncos offense to pay special attention to Wes Welker in his return to Gillette Stadium.
"They have targets at all three wide receiver positions and a top tight end right now in the league," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "You put that together with probably one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, it's going to be a tough matchup. They have a lot of weapons. I think individually we all have to be prepared and we all have to be ready to make our plays out on the field on Sunday."
The man who has emerged as Peyton Manning's top threat would be receiver Demaryius Thomas. He's been targeted 93 times this season, snatching 60 balls for 914 yards, an average of 15.2 yards per catch. He's big (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and fast (he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash before his rookie season in 2010), and can turn a short pass from Manning into a game-breaker. He has 14 plays this season of 20 yards or more and leads the league in yards after the catch with 436.
Eric Decker is a big target (6-3, 215) as well and a versatile receiver able to run routes out of the slot or outside the numbers. He averages 14.7 yards per catch and about 80 yards per game.
Tight end Julius Thomas -- who suffered a knee injury last week and was limited in practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's workout -- is an athletic anomaly, a 6-5, 250-pound former college basketball player who played just one year of college football. In his third pro season, he's broken out, leading the team in touchdown receptions with 10, and leading all tight ends in the league with 302 yards after the catch.
And then there's Welker. Perhaps the toughest of the bunch, he leads the team in receptions with 61.
Combined with a three-headed running back group led by Knowshon Moreno (eight scores), the Broncos variety in the receiving corps has helped make it the most explosive offense in the league. Whether it's by yards (4555) or points (398), however one might grade an offense, Denver's is second-to-none.
What's a defense to do? Though the Patriots have been successful in the past by shutting down an opponent's best offensive player -- most recently it was Jimmy Graham of the Saints -- that may prove to be a difficult endeavor against the Broncos who have several similarly-dangerous pieces.
"You have to play good team defense," Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained this week. "That’s all there is to it. It’s not just, ‘Take one guy away in their offense.’ They have a lot of weapons, they execute very well. Peyton does a tremendous job of getting in good plays and making good decisions, taking what’s there, what the defense allows you to have and he’s very, very accurate with the ball. Everybody is just going to have to do their job. You can’t just shut down one guy. I don’t think that will even come anywhere close to stopping them, they have way too many people that will kill you."
Without the luxury of being able to shade an extra defender to one player's side of the field, McCourty said he believes the Patriots will have to play straight up and hope it's enough.
"We can't just lean one way," he said. "Everybody's got to play it honest. If somebody's in the middle of the field trying to read the quarterback, or has half the field, try to read the quarterback and go from there."
That it is a short week for New England as it comes off of its 24-20 loss on Monday night to the Panthers doesn't make the task of studying Denver's offense any easier.
"I think we're being tested as a football team in general, coming off a tough game and now going against one of the toughest teams in the NFL this year," McCourty said. "We have to really prepare hard and be ready to go. We can't come in and say 'Oh it's a short week and that's the reason we didn't play well.' We gotta be ready to go Sunday night. It's a big one."