DENVER – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by Sports XChange) – With their playoff fate hanging in the balance, the Denver Broncos face make-or-break games in the last three weeks of the regular season, starting Sunday against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS). The defending Super Bowl champions, the Broncos (8-5) enter the game as the sixth (and final) seed in the AFC, but the Miami Dolphins are also 8-5 and could overtake the Broncos if tiebreakers shift in their favor. Three more AFC teams have seven wins apiece.
“We’re going to have to play exceptional from here on, especially this week,” said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who added that he viewed New England as “the best team in football.”
The Patriots (11-2) enter the game with the best record in the AFC. They are no strangers when it comes to playing the Broncos, whom they faced 13 times in the past 12 years. Four of those meetings came in the postseason, including last season’s AFC Championship Game, which Denver took en route to its Super Bowl triumph over the Carolina Panthers.
However, Denver is treading an uncertain path in its title defense. The Broncos lost two of their past three games, and they face a brutal stretch in the final three weeks of the season.
After playing New England, the Broncos face a Christmas night meeting with the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs followed by a New Year’s Day regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders. Each of Denver’s three closing opponents has at least 10 wins.
“I don’t care who we play,” Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. “We need to win these next three games. We’ve been in some tough games and come out on top, and we’ve been on the bottom of some tough games. We’ve played two of the teams already (the Chiefs and Raiders). One game was close. One was not. Divisional games are always tough. The Patriots are almost a divisional game. … It’s another great challenge with Brady coming up.”
The Broncos’ struggles are most noticeable on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in the running game, where they are having difficulty establishing a consistent threat since the early-season injury loss of C.J. Anderson.
Trevor Siemian, in his first year as the Broncos’ starting quarterback after the retirement of Peyton Manning, is showing promise as a passer, helped by playmaking wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
“You look at the production the couple of years together in Denver, I don’t know if you’ll find a pair of receivers better than them,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of Thomas and Sanders.
Even so, the lack of offensive balance is causing the offense to sputter — especially early. Denver has been outscored 70-23 in the first quarter this season.
With the offense having trouble moving the chains, the Broncos’ vaunted defense has been on the field for longer periods and under more sustained pressure.
In Denver’s loss last week at Tennessee, the Titans ran roughshod, gaining 180 yards on the ground. Even though the Titans had a tough time moving the ball through the air, their rushing attack more than made up the difference.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are riding a wave of momentum behind the streaking Brady, who has 22 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in nine games. He missed the first four games of the season while serving a league-imposed, four-game suspension for the “Deflategate” controversy.
“He’s (effective) day in and day out,” McCourty said of Brady. “Practice can go like that when he gets going, so it’s not new to us. We see it all the time.”
McCourty won’t get any argument on Brady from the Broncos.
“He is the best quarterback in the league,” said Denver cornerback Aqib Talib, a former member of the Patriots.
There is no question the Broncos’ defense will again try to zero in on Brady, who was sacked five times and hit on numerous other occasions in Denver’s AFC title-game win last January.
The Patriots will keep a keen eye on pass-rushing linebacker Von Miller, who made life miserable for Brady in the teams’ last meeting.
“He’s a very hard guy to block,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He can do a lot of things. He’s explosive. He’s fast. He’s quick and he can play with power. Even when you get him blocked, he doesn’t stay blocked. He’s got the ability to separate. He’s an outstanding player.”
The Broncos are dealing with injuries among their corps of linebackers. Brandon Marshall (hamstring) missed last week’s game and remains a question mark for the Patriots game. Fellow linebacker Todd Davis missed practice time this week because of an oblique injury.
Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola is questionable this week because of an ankle injury. Tight end Martellus Bennett also had some restrictions in practice this week because of ankle and shoulder issues, as did cornerback Malcolm Butler (hip) and safety Jordan Richards (knee).