ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The numbers aren’t good, and for the Denver Broncos, there really isn’t any way to massage them so that they look better.
The Broncos are 1-5 the last six times they have faced the New England Patriots. And because these teams have been among the AFC’s power brokers when those games have been played – there are two playoff games in that total – it is clear the Broncos’ ability to be what they want to be has been impacted by their inability to handle the big-moment games with the Patriots.
Sunday night is another opportunity with the Patriots at 10-0 and the Broncos at 8-2. If the Broncos want all of their potential playoff games at home before the Super Bowl, it’s imperative they win Sunday night, and then they would need to get a little help, too.
But with a potential playoff meeting against the Patriots still on the table, it’s also imperative that the Broncos show some big-game moxie. Sure, they’ve got injuries, but December is closing in and everybody in the NFL has problems. They need a quality night’s work Sunday to set the table for what their stretch drive means and where they eventually fit in the playoff picture.
“We are really looking forward to it," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “Our fans, our team -- I think everybody’s excited about it."
So, some things to watch for Sunday night against the Patriots:
Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler will have to handle something, or plenty of somethings, from the Patriots' defense that he likely did not see on any game video or did not practice against this past week. That’s how it works against the shape-shifting Patriots sometimes. They add things, subtract things and move players around. Sure, some of it is the proverbial window dressing – their basic concepts camouflaged by a different alignment or two – but it all makes the need to adjust vital. And Osweiler, in his second career start, will have to adjust on the fly in this one.
The Broncos also need to protect Osweiler far better than they have to this point -- he has been sacked eight times in less than six quarters in the last two games -- against a defense that rushes the passer almost as well as the Broncos’ own defense has to this point. The Patriots don’t have to blitz all that often because they create problems with their four-man rush, especially Chandler Jones, but Rob Ninkovich also has routinely been a thorn in the Broncos’ side in recent matchups. The bottom line is the Broncos have consistently struggled with rushers who come from off the line of scrimmage after a slight delay, and there is no doubt Bill Belichick has noticed.
Some kind of productive day in the run game would likely go a long way toward settling Osweiler down in this prime-time game. The Patriots surrendered some rushing yardage early in the season, including 160 yards to the Indianapolis Colts, but have kept offenses in check in that regard during the last five games – Buffalo’s 94 yards rushing this past Monday night is the most the Patriots have allowed in their last five games. However, teams have carved out some room in the middle of the formation with 4.1 yards per carry on runs that originate over the center and 4 yards per carry on runs that originate over the left and right guard, respectively.
With the injuries the Patriots have had at wide receiver, there is no reason to think the Broncos couldn’t match up in man coverage on the receivers in the formation and then give help on tight end Rob Gronkowski. Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan used cornerback Champ Bailey at times to cover tight ends he thought could have a significant impact, such as Antonio Gates in his prime, and it’s possible the Broncos could use their quality depth at cornerback to do just that. But for the strategy to work, the players in man coverage have to hold up their end of the bargain. The Broncos can’t help on Gronkowski and then allow Tom Brady to convert first downs and move the Patriots’ offense by consistently using other receivers. The Broncos have to take away the top target and not leave room for the Plan Bs, either.