FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick is not oblivious to what's going on outside of Gillette Stadium. He knows there are those who question Peyton Manning's ability right now, and he knows he can't control what people will say about the Broncos quarterback.
But Belichick can control the message that trickles down to his players and staff. That message, apparently, is to prepare for Manning's best.
"Peyton is a great player," Belichick told reporters on Wednesday. "He's had as . . . You know, we've had tremendous battles against him through the years. There isn't a player off our team that I have any more respect for than Peyton Manning. His preparation, his consistency, his skills. I would never, ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstances."
While Belichick has long respected Manning's ability to orchestrate an offense, it remains to be seen how the Patriots will defend him. Given his arm strength at this point in his career, there are certain routes and concepts that Manning is better equipped to handle.
The Broncos short-to-intermediate passing game -- including screens to receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom are effective runners after the catch -- will likely be a focus, meaning it could be a matchup where Patriots defensive backs play tight to the line of scrimmage in obvious passing situations in order to neutralize some of those throws.
The deep passing game, on the other hand, probably won't be as significant a factor as it was when Brock Osweiler served as the Broncos starter back in Week 12. But Belichick still highlighted the abilities of both Sanders and Thomas in that area.
"You can't just take away one thing," Belichick said. "They're both great catch-and-run players. They can both beat you on intermediate routes, come-backs, in-cuts, slim posts, things like that. And then they're both great down the field with vertical routes, double moves or just deep patterns, goes, posts, post corners, things like that. They can threaten you at all levels of the defense, and that's what makes them a problem. It's not just one thing."
Even if Manning doesn't have the same ability to push the ball down the field that he once did, Belichick insisted that the Patriots will have to be ready for those types of throws. It's possible that Broncos coach Gary Kubiak scripts a handful of deep passes early in the game just to keep Patriots defensive backs honest.
Even if the football comes out of his hand end-over-end at times, and even if his accuracy attempting passes down the field has waned, Manning still has Belichick's respect. The Patriots coach knows that his defense will have to be alert and prepared for a variety of different looks.
He doesn't want this game to be the one where Manning completes passes for chunks of yardage at a time simply because the Patriots weren't expecting them.
"Look, if they see it's there, then they're going to hit you with it whether they've shown it or not," Belichick said. "So you've got to be sound. You've got to be disciplined. To a certain extent, you have to be balanced because if you give them an obvious weakness, they'll kill you with that regardless of what their tendencies are . . . You've got to defend everything."