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Thursday, October 30, 2003
Updated: October 31, 10:11 AM ET
Broncos face critical game Monday night

ESPN

DENVER -- It's hard to imagine a critical game at the midpoint of the season, but that's just what the Denver Broncos face Monday night against New England.

Sure, the Broncos are 5-3 and in second place in the AFC West, but they've lost three of the past four games and certainly don't want to head into their bye week with another loss.

"We need to go into the break with some momentum," Broncos running back Clinton Portis said Thursday. "Right now there are a lot of bad things happening for the team with injuries and everything else. This is a critical game. We need to come out and make a statement Monday night and get things going back positive."

But to do that, receiver Rod Smith believes, the Broncos will have to get back to having fun on the football field.

The Broncos were loose and relaxed the first part of the season and reeled off four straight wins. As the injuries and losses have piled up over the last four weeks, the players have started putting more pressure on themselves to break out of the rut.

"You can't play this game if you're all uptight," Smith said. "You're going to go out there, overdo it and make mistakes. It's still a game. True, there's a lot of emphasis on these games, but it's still a game."

To take some of the pressure off, Smith said everyone should look back to the days when they first started playing football.

"As a kid when you played games with your friends in the yard, you could play it all day," Smith said. "You never got tired and you could be out there until your mom told you to come in the house. It's kind of like that for us right now. We have to go back to having fun." ------=

^RUN AND RUN SOME MORE:@ Opponents have been stacking against the run with quarterback Jake Plummer out with a broken foot, but running back Clinton Portis said he doesn't think the Broncos should change their game plan.

If anything, he thinks they should try to put more emphasis on the running game.

"It seems that's been the game plan for a while now: to stop our running game, to not let us get any play action going and try to control the game. Make us one dimensional," Portis said. "We can't let that happen. We've got to come out and establish the run, we've got to sustain long drives and keep the ball moving."

Smith believes the Broncos need to just get one big play early to get things rolling.

"We need a big run, a big pass downfield, a quarterback scramble, whatever," he said. "I think that would be a perfect kind of scenario for us to build off of." ^------=

^SYKES AND MOBLEY:@ John Mobley's neck injury in Sunday's loss at Baltimore was difficult for Broncos linebacker Jashon Sykes to watch. That's because he's been through a serious neck injury himself.

Sykes was injured in 2001 while he was still at the University of Colorado. He played through pain in that game against Kansas, finishing with a sack and eight tackles, but an MRI later revealed a herniated disc.

Sykes had fusion surgery and made a full recovery.

"I get flashbacks almost every day," he said. "I've come so far from my injury. I'm not really looking back, but I tend to think about it often."

Because of injuries to Mobley and Ian Gold, Sykes and Donnie Spragan will start alongside middle linebacker Al Wilson Monday night. It will be a big change for Wilson, who had been part of the same starting trio for 22 games before Gold's season-ending knee injury three weeks ago.

"Having Donnie and Jashon in is definitely going to be a new challenge for me, one I'm looking forward to," Wilson said. "But we're going to have to build that chemistry and communicate and spend a lot of time with each other talking through things." ^------=

^EXTRA POINTS:@ New England has not allowed a touchdown in the first quarter in seven straight games. ... Denver and New England will play for the ninth consecutive season, the longest active streak between nondivision rivals in the NFL. ... WR/KR Chris Cole made it through a second straight practice without any problems. He missed Sunday's game against Baltimore with a sprained ankle. ... The Broncos practiced at Family Sports Center's indoor bubble because of inclement weather. The practice bubble at Denver's training facility burst in high winds during training camp and likely won't be repaired until after the season.