Raising the stakes on the Pats-Broncos rivalry

There hasn’t even been an entire week of NFL free agency yet, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t felt like a full week for fans of New England and Denver. Last offseason, the NFL arms race was quite clearly between San Francisco and Seattle. The two top NFC teams one-upped each other with signings or trades on a daily basis. The end result was the two teams meeting in a heart-stopping NFC Championship that turned out to be the “real” title game of the NFL season.

This offseason, it’s Denver and New England going head-to-head for headlines. Tuesday, the Broncos signed Pro-Bowler Aqib Talib away from New England. And Denver also snagged safety T.J. Ward, who just happened to destroy Rob Gronkowski’s knee last season. (Could he be the new Bernard Pollard?) Not to be outdone, the Patriots on Wednesday signed All-Pro Darrelle Revis to replace—and upgrade—from the injury-prone Talib. Also that day, the Broncos added All-Pro defensive end/linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Thursday turned out to be a quiet day for rest and introspection, but on Friday the Patriots added their second addition to the secondary with Brandon Browner.

Then came Saturday—otherwise known as the Day of Wide Receivers. The Patriots re-upped Julian Edelman and later added Brandon LaFell. Denver countered with Emmanuel Sanders. (One year after he signed a tender with New England, it’s amusing to see his agent being portrayed as “dirty” for his latest eyebrow-raising tactics, when it was the Patriots’ organization that was viewed in that negative light last year for choosing to sign a restricted free agent.)

The tally in the past six days is four new players for Denver and three new players for New England. Six of the seven additions are either wideouts or defenders in the secondary. The seventh is Ware, whose greatest skill is rushing the passer. Both Denver and New England’s greatest player is at the quarterback position, so it’s obvious that the scheme to stop the other would be heavily pass-focused. And that helping each quarterback by adding a wide receiver was also on the must-do list for each team.

The arms race has not come without casualties on each team. Denver will bid farewell to wide receiver Eric Decker and cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Patriots will lose Talib and safety Steve Gregory, while likely parting ways with Vince Wilfork. If the decision for the Patriots came down to having Wilfork or Revis on the roster, it’s hard to argue they made the wrong decision. The league’s been moving to a passing league for more than a decade, and the Seahawks just won the Super Bowl with a defense focused primarily on stopping the pass. Wilfork’s greatest asset—among his many attributes when healthy—is his ability to be a one-man run-stuffing machine. These days, especially when your main rival is Peyton Manning, stopping the run is simply not as important as stopping the pass. The Super Bowl champion Seahawks know that. And based upon the past week, the Patriots and Broncos do as well.

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