Can two second-year quarterbacks, the Patriots’ Jarrett Stidham and the Broncos’ Drew Lock, breathe new life into an idle rivalry that used to rock the AFC?
When you think of rivalries within the NFL, you often also have to think of time period.
Outside of Bears/Packers, most of the best rivalries in professional football are defined by when they actually occurred.
Cowboys/49ers isn’t the same today as it was during the 70s, 80s, or 90s even.
Seahawks/49ers was probably at its peak during the Jim Harbaugh/Pete Carroll and Michael Crabtree/Richard Sherman days, though it seems like it could be getting spicy once again.
Steelers/Ravens is undoubtedly one of the best rivalries in the NFL today, but the current Baltimore Ravens franchise didn’t technically even exist 25 years ago.
Divisional rivalries are much more commonplace regardless of era. When you play the same teams twice per season over and over again, naturally there’s going to be some bad blood that spills over.
Such is the case with the New England Patriots and their AFC East rivals: the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins.
Of the three, most Pats fans will probably tell you that the Jets are their main rival, despite the fact that the Dolphins have historically (and recently) given New England more trouble than New York or Buffalo ever have.
The Patriots also had a significant rivalry with the Colts for a number of years, thanks to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning being widely viewed as the best quarterbacks in the league during their respective primes, and the fact that both of them played in the same conference.
With all due respect to Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and any other AFC challengers, the two quarterbacks that defined the conference for most of the 2000s and the first half of the 2010s was undoubtedly Brady and Manning.
When Manning left the Colts for the Broncos, the rivalry between New England and Indianapolis significantly lessened — but of course, the Brady/Manning rivalry then stoked up the fires between Denver and New England.
Longtime NFL fans will tell you that this rivalry actually predates Manning’s arrival in 2012, however. It certainly reignited the rivalry and poured fuel on the fire, but the Patriots and the Broncos had an exciting and contentious history long before No. 18 ever showed up on the scene.
In fact, the first game in the history of both franchises came against each other on September 9, 1960. The Broncos won 13-10 on the road at Boston University Field in a game that also doubled as the first-ever American Football League contest.
The Pats and Broncos went head-to-head twice per year throughout the 1960s, meeting just once per season in only 1967 and 1969. All in all, they met 18 times during that decade, with the Patriots ultimately edging the Broncos by a 10-8 overall margin.
When the AFL merged with the National Football league, the Patriots and Broncos ended up in the same conference but in very different divisions. Denver has been in the AFC West and New England has been in the AFC East since 1970, and the teams met just three times in the 70s, with Denver winning two of those three games.
The frequency of their meetings increased slightly in the 80s. Denver won four out of five regular season matchups that decade, in addition to the first-ever playoff meeting between the squads — a 22-17 home victory at Mile High Stadium during the Divisional round of the 1986/1987 NFL Playoffs.
From 1980 to 1999, the Broncos absolutely dominated the rivalry, winning 11 of 13 meetings. It was during the 90s that the Broncos also rose to national prominence with John Elway as their quarterback, eventually winning two titles in 1998 and 1999.
The tide turned with the new millennium, however, and the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in New England. Although while the Patriots have since won six Super Bowl titles (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018) to the Broncos’ one (2015) since 2000, Denver has continued to prove itself as a thorn in the side of New England … even long before Manning arrived.
Denver won five of eight regular season meetings in the 2000s — plus the lone playoff matchup, a 27-13 home win in the Divisional round of the 2005/2006 NFL Playoffs. Keep in mind, that was a game that pitted Brady against Jake Plummer.
Despite New England’s three Super Bowl wins and overall dominance in the 2000s, the Broncos actually continued to dominate their rival that decade by a 6-3 overall margin.
It wasn’t until the Patriots pulled ahead in the 2010s, going 7-3 against the Broncos, that this rivalry began to get less one-sided. It was New England’s first time holding the edge in the rivalry in a decade since the 1960s.
That being said, in the three playoff meetings between the teams during the 2010s, Denver won two of three again — and both wins came in the AFC Championship Games of the 2013 and 2015 seasons.
To paint an even clearer picture of how much the Broncos have been a pain for the Patriots even during New England’s “golden age,” consider this astonishing fact: While with the Pats, Tom Brady lost more than five games in his entire 20-year career to just three franchises.
You’d think those three teams would be his AFC East rivals he faced twice per year each season: the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins. But truthfully, only the Jets and Dolphins make the list, with Brady having lost seven games to New York and 12 games to Miami during his Hall of Fame career.
The third team? You guessed it: the Broncos.
Brady has lost six of his 13 regular season meetings with Denver, putting him at 7-6 against the Broncos as a Patriot. He also lost three of four postseason meetings with the Broncos while with New England.
Altogether, that leaves him at 7-9 all-time against Denver.
With Brady gone to the Buccaneers and Manning retired, though, is there any hope for this rivalry continuing on?
If there’s going to be, it lies with a couple of second-year signal-callers in Denver’s Drew Lock and New England’s Jarrett Stidham.
Both come from the SEC, both were rookies in 2019 who started off the season as backups, and both now enter 2020 as the starters on their respective teams.
There are certainly differences between them, though.
Lock was a second-round pick while Stidham was a fourth-round pick, and while it’s a bit of a surprise to see Stidham starting now given Brady’s still in the league and not retired, Lock was drafted to be the eventual starter for Denver.
The Patriots and Broncos haven’t met since the 2017 regular season, but that’s about to change in 2020. Denver will travel to Foxborough to take on New England in Week 5 for a game on October 11.
Other games on the Patriots’ schedule jump off the page more than this one, but keep an eye on it all the same.
Given the fascinating and oftentimes contentious rivalry between these two teams that both started off in 1960 — and that both share the record for the most Super Bowl losses (5) — it should be a fun subplot this year and in the future to see if Stidham and Lock can reignite one of the AFC’s best old rivalries.