Curran's Patriots-Broncos preview
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots have scored 41, 31 and 45 points in their last three meetings with Denver. Last October, New England ran for 251 yards on 54 carries. The Patriots had 35 first downs and went 11 for 17 on third down. Stevan Ridley ran for 151 and Welker was targeted 15 times, catching 13 for 104 yards. Ridley’s still here. Welker isn’t but Danny Amendola is good to go and he’s shown that when he’s healthy he can do similar damage. The Broncos are excellent at applying pressure with their edge players, Shaun Phillips and Von Miller along with sub-rusher Robert Ayers. The Patriots had blocking mishaps last week that led to a pair of costly sacks. The Broncos linebackers – Wesley Woodyard and Dan Trevathan – can fly. The secondary can be had, although Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been playing better since getting to Denver. The Bronco linebackers may be able to contain Rob Gronkowski some but the X-factor of Shane Vereen, Amendola working out of the slot and Aaron Dobson continuing to play solidly gives the Patriots plenty of aerial firepower. And they know they can run with authority on this defense.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots defense at full strength would have an issue keeping Denver under 24. With their front decimated and every key secondary player outside of Devin McCourty dealing with injuries, New England’s got big problems. They know what bothers Welker and, while Wes will get his, he’s also going to get bumped and jostled. The Patriots will not want the postscript to this game to be how badly Welker kicked their ass. Julius Thomas is a problem for the Patriots sluggish coverage at the linebacker level. But the biggest problem is dealing with Demaryius Thomas. Manning will find the times when there’s no help from McCourty and try to exploit the size-speed advantage Thomas owns. Pre-injury, Aqib Talib would be able to deal with Thomas. With his balky hip, Thomas could be a big problem. The Patriots run defense has been quietly stout and the Broncos are very much a pass-first team. Demaryius Thomas, coverage on Julius Thomas at the linebacker level and Eric Decker on crossing patterns are the checklist for New England to deal with. After dealing with Cam Newton’s backbreaking third-down scrambles last Monday night, the Patriots will welcome the immobile Manning as a change-up.
THE KICKING GAME
Trindon Holliday for the Broncos is explosive on kickoff returns and with cold expected, it’s likely we’ll see some balls coming out of the end zone on Stephen Gostkowski kickoffs. Holliday averages more than 30 yards per kickoff return. He’s also the Broncos main punt returner and – while explosive there as well – sometimes makes risky choices. Matt Prater is a very good kicker as is Gostkowski. Britton Colquitt and Ryan Allen are both better than average punters.
PATRIOTS SICK BAY
OUT: Michael Hoomanawanui, TE; QUESTIONABLE: Kyle Arrington, CB; Alfonzo Dennard, CB; Steve Gregory, S; Aqib Talib, CB; Leon Washington, RB. PROBABLE: Danny Amendola, WR; Tom Brady, QB; Rob Gronkowski, TE; Matthew Slater, WR; Brandon Spikes, LB; Shane Vereen, RB
BRONCOS SICK BAY
QUESTIONABLE: Champ Bailey, CB; Julius Thomas, TE; PROBABLE: Joel Dreesen, TE; Orlando Franklin, T; Duke Ihenacho, S; Nate Irving, LB; Winston Justice, T; Chris Kuper, G; Peyton Manning, QB; JD Walton, C; Wes Welker, WR
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
We’re talking Bill Belichick against Jack Del Rio here. For all the advantages Denver has in offensive artillery against a dented Patriots defense, the checkmark for sideline brainpower goes in favor of New England. In a game like this where adjustments will have to be fast and hard decisions in crunch time and time management are bound to be made, New England has the more experienced hand on the controls.
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP …
Demaryius Thomas. Denver has a fleet of weapons but Thomas is the most daunting because A) Peyton Manning relies on him (team-high 92 targets) and B) Thomas is not just a huge target at 6-3, 229 but an explosive after-the-catch athlete (15.2 yards per catch). Denver gets him the ball on a variety of routes and his acceleration is absurd. A diminished Aqib Talib may try to dog Thomas all around the field but it’s going to be a major chore to hold him down.
BRONCOS GOTTA STOP …
Stevan Ridley. So many of Denver’s games have been lopsided early and that’s resulted in teams having to shelve their ground game. But there are yards to be made. Denver’s allowed 144, 131, 112, 121, and 166 on the ground in five of their last seven games. In the other two, Dallas didn’t try to run (14 attempts) and the Jaguars were busy being ineffective running and throwing. The Patriots have the ability to light up Denver’s defense in two different ways and establishing Ridley (and convincing him to protect the ball) should be the first one they try to establish.
DON'T BE SURPRISED IF …
This game gets into the 80s despite the chill. Neither team has an all-world defense.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“You tell them, ‘OK, here we are, we’re going to be in Cover-2 zone, go ahead and run your best play,’ well they will. Or ‘We’re going to be in man-free or we’re going to be in blitz or we’re going to be in man-under two-deep, what are you going to do about it?’ They can usually do something about it. I don’t really think anybody has had a lot of success playing them (without disguising). … They’ve scored like, I don’t know, more points than anybody in football. I’m just saying, it’s hard to do. Somewhere along the line, they have a good matchup, if they know exactly what you’re in …I think you’re probably not going to like the way it’s going to end up.” – Bill Belichick on the need to disguise against the Denver offense.
THAT SUMS IT UP BRONCOS STYLE
“Yeah, it was, because after that we kind of turned it on a little bit. Because we know we’ve got to be very prepared to play a team like that. They’re going to be well-coached, well-prepared. We can’t go up there messing around. I mean, you’ve got to handle their tempo and whatever they throw at us. I think we are a lot more prepared this year than we were last year.” – Champ Bailey, Broncos corner, on how the Patriots win at Gillette in 2012 was a wakeup call.
THE WINNER IS...
Broncos 31, Patriots 28