New England Patriots (11-2) at Denver Broncos (8-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson.
SERIES HISTORY: 47th regular-season meeting. Denver leads all-time series, 26-20. The two teams, with a history that dates back to the AFL, have met in each of the last five seasons. While the Broncos lead the all-time series thanks in large part to a 10-game winning streak from 1984 to 1998, New England has been far more competitive in the Bill Belichick era. The Patriots had a four-game winning streak snapped by last season’s 30-24 overtime loss in Denver. Three of the last six games in the regular-season series have gone to overtime. The teams also have played frequently in the postseason, Denver having won four of five playoff games. All four wins have come at Mile High, including the AFC title game last season. Tom Brady is 5-6 in the regular season against the Broncos, 2-4 in Denver.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
The Broncos, precariously perched as the No. 6 seed in the AFC, face make-or-break games in the last three weeks of the season, starting Sunday against the Patriots. The Patriots (11-2) enter the game with the best record in the AFC and trying to clinch the top seed.
There was a narrow path for the Broncos to win last year’s AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, and they found it, using a frenzied pass rush led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. But this year, that might not be enough.
Denver’s run defense is not as stout as it was last year, and New England’s LeGarrette Blount-led rushing game ranks seventh in the league. Blount’s solid work will be called on early against a Broncos rush defense that’s near the bottom of the league, allowing more than 127 yards a game and 4.2 yards a carry. Getting Blount — and maybe Dion Lewis — going early would set up play-action opportunities to attack the No. 1 pass defense and help keep the Broncos’ top-ranked pass rush from teeing off on Brady.
The Broncos must run the football better — even if it’s by using the pass to set up the run. Since C.J. Anderson suffered a torn meniscus on Oct. 24 against Houston, the Broncos have the league’s worst average per rushing attempt.
Matt Patricia’s evolving Patriots defense will continue to focus taking away the run. The No. 6 rush defense should be able to do that against a Broncos attack that ranks 27th in the league and is averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt. New England has held three straight opponents to 3 yards a carry or less, so the front should be prepared for the limited challenge.
In terms of the passing game, the Patriots will continue the recent trend of throwing a lot of looks at the opposing quarterback. Trevor Siemian will likely see more zone than man, but New England will also sprinkle in some pressure schemes that have become just a bit more frequent in recent weeks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Broncos OLB Von Miller. Miller was literally a pain in every part of Brady’s body the last time these teams met, in the AFC Championship Game. Miller had 2.5 sacks and seven QB hits that day and is in the midst of another dominant season, tying for the NFL lead with 13.5 sacks. Sure, it’s on Brady’s line to protect him, but the veteran passer needs to get rid of the ball and not allow potential early hits to derail him from his game plan.
–Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders vs. Patriots cornerbacks. Though New England may choose to match up No. 1 CB Malcolm Butler with Denver’s receiving yardage leader, more likely the entire back end will have to play a role in trying to keep Sanders in check. Sanders and Demaryius Thomas each have at least 75 catches for 925 yards and five scores. Sanders has had at least 98 yards receiving in each of his last three meetings with New England and he’s had at least five catches in every game (including postseason) he has played against the Patriots dating back to his days in Pittsburgh.
FRIDAY TEAM REPORT:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
–Out: WR Danny Amendola (ankle)
–Questionable: TE Martellus Bennett (ankle, shoulder), CB Malcolm Butler (hip), LB Dont’a Hightower (knee), S Jordan Richards (knee), LB Elandon Roberts (hamstring), CB Eric Rowe (hamstring), WR Matt Slater (foot)
–Out: LS Casey Kreiter (calf), LB Brandon Marshall (hamstring)
–Questionable: LB Todd Davis (rib cage)
Broncos TE A.J. Derby. The Patriots traded Derby to the Broncos one week before the deadline, and now he hopes to show New England what it let go when it dealt him. Derby might have found his way into the Patriots’ rotation by now in the wake of Rob Gronkowski‘s back surgery, but instead he has seen an increasing role in Denver’s offense, catching a career-high five passes for 57 yards last Sunday. Given the Broncos’ lack of consistent pass-catching tight ends, he seems likely to play a prominent role this week.
In the past 10 games vs. Denver, Patriots QB Tom Brady has 2,814 passing yards, 21 TDs and two interceptions.
In his past two games vs. Denver, Patriots WR Julian Edelman has 199 receiving yards and three scores. He is going for his sixth straight game this season with at least seven catches.
Patriots LB Rob Ninkovich has four sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception in the past six meetings.
Broncos QB Trevor Siemien has 15 touchdowns and four interceptions in his past nine games. He has thrown for 300 yards, with no interceptions, in each of the past two games.
Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas has 100 receiving yards in three of his past five game vs. New England. Since 2012, he is second in the NFL with 478 catches.
In his past five games vs. the Patriots, Denver LB Von Miller has 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, two caused fumbles, a recovery and an interception.
The Broncos have everything on the line, but they just don’t have enough offense to keep up with the AFC’s best team.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 30-20.
This could be a close game, or this could be one of those deals where a group of guys play for their embattled head coach. The media in Buffalo continually peppered Rex Ryan about his defense getting run over the last several weeks. Methinks that group will ball out against an easy target. Of course, will pummeling the winless Browns solve anything for the Bills? Probably not, as it looks like the wild-card ship has sailed for them. Still, Buffalo could run the table and finish 9-7 — which would mean handing another loss to the Dolphins, who are starting a backup quarterback at the moment and are among the frontrunners for that final AFC wild-card spot. Meanwhile, if Cleveland is to get win No. 1, Isaiah Crowell must go off, à la Le’Veon Bell — or at least post 110 rushing yards, so that the outcome doesn’t rest on the Browns‘ passing game. #CLEvsBUF