Bill Belichick at Denver
Bill Belichick at Denver
C.J. Anderson (22)
DENVER BRONCOS (3-4) AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (7-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Lincoln Financial Field. TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn (field reporter).
SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Eagles lead series, 7-5. The Broncos have won three of the last four. The most historic meeting was on Dec. 14, 1975, when the Broncos defeated the Eagles 25-10 in Floyd Little’s last game. Little was carried off the field after the contest.
KEYS TO THE GAME: After four defeats in which Trevor Siemian threw eight interceptions, Broncos coach Vance Joseph has replaced Siemian with Brock Osweiler, who is returning to the starting position he held with the Broncos for six games in 2015.
Osweiler’s job is simple. “The saying is: ‘Ball security is job security,'” he said. “If you protect the football, you’re going to stay out there on the field.”
The Broncos have outgained their opposition in every game this season, but they are 3-4 because of a minus-11 turnover margin.
The Eagles, who have the league’s No. 1 run defense, want to shut down C.J. Anderson and the Broncos’ ground game and force Osweiler to throw the ball.
The Eagles also made a big move this week, adding Jay Ajayi in a trade with Miami. He adds another dimension to a strong running attack bolstered by the power of LeGarrette Blount and QB Carson Wentz’s scrambling threat.
Philadelphia’s offense is potent and balanced, with Wentz hitting three players for 27 or more receptions halfway through the season. The Eagles will plan to add Ajayi to that mix and make it tougher on Denver.
The Broncos will try to contain the Eagles and hold them below their averages, as they have done with so many other offenses in recent years.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Eagles QB Carson Wentz vs. Broncos rushers Von Miller, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. Ray returned to the lineup last Monday and Barrett posted the Broncos’ first strip-sack fumble at the expense of Alex Smith in that loss at Kansas City, so the group should be rounding into form just in time to face the sizzling second-year quarterback, who is tied for the NFL lead with 19 TD passes and ranks first in the NFC with 2,063 yards. The Broncos’ success at mounting a potent pass rush against some of the league’s best quarterbacks has fueled their defensive success in the last three seasons. The wrinkle they could throw in Sunday is a package that gets all three edge rushers onto the field at the same time, something they used to generate pressure on Smith in the loss at Arrowhead Stadium.
–Broncos RBs C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker and Jamaal Charles vs. Eagles’ front seven. A 177-yard rushing night got Denver’s running game back on track after two subpar weeks, although the performance was marred by Charles’ fumble in the first quarter. Booker has shown a burst in recent weeks, especially as a target in the passing game. The Eagles are allowing fewer rushing yards than anyone in the NFL, but that is also a function of playing in the lead; they’ve had fewer runs attempted against them than anyone else. The Eagles rank 12th in yards allowed per carry.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
–Out: T Donald Stephenson (calf)
–Questionable: LB Todd Davis (ankle), G Ronald Leary (elbow), WR Emmanuel Sanders (ankle)
–Questionable: CB Ronald Darby (ankle), TE Zach Ertz (hamstring)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Broncos QB Brock Osweiler. The last time Osweiler started for the Broncos, he was pulled in the third quarter for Peyton Manning after throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble in the 2015 season finale. Manning entered the game, and the Broncos rallied from a 13-7 deficit for a 27-20 win that clinched home-field advantage. Two months later, Osweiler signed with Houston in free agency, and the Broncos’ succession plan went askew. Now Osweiler is back, humbled and wiser after his starting experience in Houston, an offseason in Cleveland and seven games as Trevor Siemian’s backup. His top task? “Protect the football,” he said. Look for Osweiler to play close to the vest, as he did during his first six starts as a Bronco, when he turned the football over just three times as the Broncos went 4-2.
FAST FACTS: Denver RB C.J. Anderson has 602 scrimmage yards and six TDS in the past seven vs. the NFC. … WR Demaryius Thomas had 86 receiving yards and two TD catches in his only career meeting. In his past 10 games vs. NFC clubs, he has 894 yards and five TD catches. … LB Von Miller has 8.5 sacks in his past nine games vs. the NFC. He has three sacks in his past three road games. Since entering the NFL in 2011, he has 80.5 sacks, most in the NFL. … DE Derek Wolfe had a sack in the last meeting. He has three sacks in his past four games vs. NFC squads. … Eagles QB Carson Wentz is tied for the NFL lead with 19 TD passes and ranks first in the NFC with 2,063 passing yards. His 19 TD passes are most in franchise history in the first eight games. He has 10 TDs and three INTs in his past three home games. … RB LeGarrette Blount scored a rushing TD last week. The former Patriot has 10 rushing TDs in his past 11 games vs. AFC teams. … TE Zach Ertz is tied for third in the NFL with six TD catches and leads NFC tight ends with 43 receptions and 528 yards. He has caught a TD pass in four straight games. … CB Jalen Mills had a 37-yard interception for a TD last week, his first career TD. He leads the NFC with 10 pass breakups.
PREDICTION: It’s a prototypical matchup of offense (Eagles) vs. defense (Broncos), but Osweiler’s performance might be the biggest factor. It’s hard to see him stopping the Eagles’ six-game winning streak.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (2-1) AT DENVER BRONCOS (2-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sports Authority Field at Mile High: CBS, announcers Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (field reporter).
Oakland Raiders: QB David Carr
SERIES HISTORY: 114th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 61-50-2. The Broncos won the most recent meeting 24-6 in Denver in Week 17 of last season with Raiders quarterback Derek Carr out with a broken fibula. Backup QB Matt McGloin started and was injured and was replaced by QB Connor Cook. The loss cost the Raiders the AFC West division title, and they lost the following week 27-14 to Houston in the wild-card round with Cook at quarterback.
KEYS TO THE GAME: For the Broncos, it starts with eliminating their own mistakes. Denver has six turnovers in its first three games, and opponents have cashed in on those giveaways, turning them into four touchdowns and a field goal that account for nearly half (31 of 64) of the points surrendered by the Broncos so far this season. Defensively, the Broncos will first try to contain Oakland’s running game. Even though Raiders playmakers Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have caused problems to plenty of foes, the Broncos have generally been successful at containing them. If they can limit mistakes and force the Raiders to pass the football, they’ll have control of the game and a good chance to be 3-1 at their bye.
Look for the Raiders to challenge their offensive and defensive lines after getting pushed around by Washington. There won’t be a lot of complicated schemes — just beat the person in front of you. The Raiders defensive line did little against the Redskins in terms of pressure and although Washington didn’t get a lot of yards on the ground, the Raiders were softened up by aggressive play. The Raiders offensive line, the highest paid in the NFL, had a rare off day. Look for Todd Downing to call a game that will allow the line to assert its dominance after a stinging setback.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Raiders WR Michael Crabtree vs. Broncos CB Aqib Talib. Talib angered Crabtree in last season’s second game by tearing off the chain around his neck, an act clearly designed to get in the receiver’s head. Crabtree is coming off a one-catch game against Washington after which Josh Norman called him out for popping off in pregame about having big numbers. Whether Crabtree did this or not, only Norman knows. Crabtree never talks to the media. But the Raiders wideout caught 12 passes on 13 targets in Week 1 and 2, and was totally taken out of the game by Norman in Week 3. Look for Talib to attempt something similar.
–Broncos LT and RT Garett Bolles and Menelik Watson vs. Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack. Watson had his steadiest game last week against Buffalo, but he has allowed six sacks this season, and the Raiders will surely test their 2013 draft pick who departed in free agency. Bolles has been solid in his first three games, although he struggled at times against Buffalo as he played the entire game one week after suffering a lower-leg bruise. Mack has seven career sacks in six games against the Broncos.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
–Questionable: CB Gareon Conley (shin), WR Michael Crabtree (chest), S Keith McGill (foot)
–Out: QB Paxton Lynch (right shoulder)
–Questionable: WR Cody Latimer (knee)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Running back C.J. Anderson’s 32-yard run in the second quarter at Buffalo was his longest gain since Dec. 28, 2015, when he sprinted 39 yards into the open field with a touchdown against the Bengals. Anderson has three runs of at least 20 yards this season; he had just one run of 20-plus yards last year. The upgrades to the offensive line and Anderson’s commitment to being in better condition — which led him to take up distance cycling in the offseason — have helped him rediscover his burst.
FAST FACTS: Raiders RB Marshawn Lynch has 75 touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2007, which marks the second-most touchdowns in the league during that time. … Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders has three touchdown catches in his past five home games. … Raiders S Reggie Nelson has 35 interceptions in the past 11 seasons, which leads all active players. … Broncos LB Von Miller has compiled five sacks, four forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a pass break-up in his past seven games. Miller also has recorded 16 sacks in his previous 16 games against division opponents and will try to keep up that ratio on Sunday.
PREDICTION: The Raiders stand a much better chance to win with Derek Carr under center instead of Matt McGloin, per last meeting. However, look for home-field advantage to be a difference-maker in a narrow game.
DALLAS COWBOYS (1-0) AT DENVER BRONCOS (1-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sports Authority Field at Mile High. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 7-4. The Broncos have won five straight. The most historic meeting was in Super Bowl XII, when the Cowboys defeated the Broncos 27-10.
KEYS TO THE GAME: For Denver, it starts with stopping the run. The old clich� rings true. After allowing a 21-yard gallop to Melvin Gordon on Monday night, the Broncos’ run defense tightened up, limiting Gordon and the Chargers to just 2.0 yards per carry the rest of the game. A similar effort might be difficult to put together against the Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott; but, if the Broncos can pull that off, they will put the game into the hands of Dak Prescott.
While Prescott has been extremely effective and accurate in his career, throwing just four interceptions in 17 starts, he hasn’t faced a defense with two Pro Bowl cornerbacks like the one Denver boasts with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. If the Broncos force Prescott to throw deep and outside, they’ll have the Cowboys where they want them.
While the big matchup is Dallas’ offense against Denver’s defense, the Broncos will need to keep Trevor Siemian clean and try to maintain a running game with C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Cowboys OTs Tyron Smith and La’el Collins vs. Broncos OLBs Von Miller and Shaquil Barrett. Barrett had the only sack between the Broncos’ two edge rushers last Monday, but both generated plenty of pressure on Philip Rivers and forced the Chargers to chip and double-team on a regular basis, often limiting Rivers’ intermediate options under pressure. Smith and Collins are generally capable of succeeding in one-on-one matchups, but if they need help against Miller and Barrett, this will change the Cowboys’ equation drastically.
–Broncos OTs Garett Bolles and Menelik Watson vs. Cowboys DEs Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton and Benson Mayowa. While Dallas’ edge rushers don’t offer the same stern challenge as Chargers defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram did on Monday night, they can cause issues. And that could be troublesome after the Broncos allowed too much pressure from the edge. Watson, in particular, struggled, allowing three sacks.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Broncos DE Adam Gotsis. He made the most of his 31 snaps Monday night, posting five tackles and repeatedly bursting into the backfield. The 2016 second-round pick struggled as a rookie, in part because he was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered as a senior at Georgia Tech. But, against the Chargers, he displayed the tenacity and athleticism that caught the Broncos’ eye.
FAST FACTS: Dallas QB Dak Prescott passed for 268 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Giants last week. He has 12 passing TDs and just three interceptions in eight career road games. He also is 4-0 with nine TDs and no INTs in four games vs. the AFC. … Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott gained 140 scrimmage yards (104 rushing) in Week 1. He has hit 100 in 12 of 16 career games. In four games vs. the AFC, he has 437 rushing yards and seven TDs. … In Week 1, Dallas TE Jason Witten (11,947) surpassed Hall of Famer Michael Irvin (11,904) for most receiving yards in franchise history. … Denver QB Trevor Siemian passed for two TDs and recorded his first career rushing TD in Week 1. … Denver WR Demaryius Thomas aims for his fourth game in a row vs. the NFC with a TD catch. His 497 catches and 6,937 yards are second in the NFL since 2012.
PREDICTION: As long as Prescott and Elliott are protected by an All-Pro wall, the Cowboys will be tough to beat.
DENVER – The Denver Broncos aim to rebound from a subpar season by their standards, while the Los Angeles Chargers begin a new era when the two long-time AFC West rivals meet on Monday night in the Mile High City. Both teams also feature new coaches – Vance Joseph for Denver, Anthony Lynn for Los Angeles – while the Chargers play their initial game since unceremoniously ditching San Diego after 56 seasons.
The Broncos missed the playoffs last season after winning the Super Bowl following the 2015 campaign and once again will revolve around a defense led by star linebacker Von Miller. Denver rehired Mike McCoy to rev up the offense after he spent the last four seasons as the Chargers’ coach, going a woeful 9-23 over the past two years before being fired. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib took notice that Los Angeles wideout Keenan Allen is healthy after tearing an ACL in the 2016 season opener and cautioned that the Chargers are a dangerous foe. “They’re healthy now, and they’ve got all of their guys and all of their guns are on deck,” Talib told reporters. “They have Philip Rivers as their quarterback, so if you have a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, you’re probably going to be pretty good on offense.”
TV: 10:20 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Broncos -3.5. O/U: 43
ABOUT THE CHARGERS (2016: 5-11, fourth in AFC West): Rivers still wings the ball all over the field at age 35 and has topped 4,000 yards eight times to go along with five seasons of 30 or more touchdown passes. Melvin Gordon missed a 1,000-yard rushing season by three yards when he sat out the final three games with hip and knee injuries, while veteran Antonio Gates has 111 career touchdown receptions – tied with Tony Gonzalez for most by a tight end in NFL history. Pass rushers Joey Bosa (10.5 sacks as a rookie) and Melvin Ingram (eight) will test a Denver offensive line that has four new starters while cornerback Casey Hayward (NFL-best seven interceptions) leads the secondary.
ABOUT THE BRONCOS (2016: 9-7, third in AFC West): Trevor Siemian begins his second year as a starter after passing for 3,401 yards last season and has a solid pair of receivers at his disposal in Demaryius Thomas (five straight 1,000-yard seasons) and Emmanuel Sanders (three straight). Running back C.J. Anderson is healthy after playing just seven games in 2016 before undergoing season-ending knee surgery while former Kansas City star Jamaal Charles will try to revive his career after appearing in only eight contests over the last two seasons due to his own knee woes. Miller is second in the NFL in both sacks (73.5) and forced fumbles (19) since entering in 2011 while Talib is tied for fourth in league history with nine career interceptions returned for touchdowns.
1. The Broncos have won five of the last six meetings and hold a 63-50-1 series advantage.
2. Allen, who recorded 1,046 receiving yards as a rookie in 2013, played in just nine games over the last two seasons.
3. Miller has registered 13 sacks in 12 contests versus the Chargers.
OAKLAND RAIDERS (12-3) AT DENVER BRONCOS (8-7)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sports Authority Field at Mile High. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson.
SERIES HISTORY: 113th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 61-49-2. The Raiders have won two in a row. In last meeting in Denver, Raiders won 15-12 as Khalil Mack had five sacks of Brock Osweiler — all of them in the second half. The most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 1, 1978, when the Broncos defeated the defending champion Raiders 20-17 to win their first AFC championship.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Raiders, who have clinched a playoff berth, can secure the AFC West division and lock up a first-round bye with a win or with a loss by Kansas City. Oakland can earn the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win and a New England loss.
With Derek Carr lost to a broken leg, Matt McGloin will step in at quarterback. The Raiders will hope to succeed with the kind of game plan that was so successful in the first meeting, when they rushed 43 times for 218 yards.
Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch will both see action for Denver. No matter who takes the snaps, though, the first task remains the same: Protect the quarterback. Denver’s offensive line didn’t allow any sacks last week, but it permitted plenty of pressure, forcing Siemian to throw before he wanted time and again. If the Broncos can’t keep Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin out of their passers’ faces, the offense will again struggle.
Denver’s struggling run defense must do a better job containing Latavius Murray and Oakland’s ground game; the Raiders are one of five teams to rush for at least 150 yards at Denver’s expense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Broncos OTs Donald Stephenson and Russell Okung vs. Raiders edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. Mack and Irvin have combined for 18 of the Raiders’ 25 sacks; no other players on their roster have more than 2.5 sacks. Okung hasn’t allowed a sack since November and has finally looked comfortable after struggling at midseason, but Stephenson has consistently allowed pressure, with Dee Ford whipping around him to affect multiple Siemian throws last week.
–Raiders QB Matt McGloin vs. Broncos pass rush. Even with DeMarcus Ware sidelined, the Broncos will try to generate a pass rush that makes McGloin uncomfortable. Although McGloin has a low sack rate — one every 30.6 pass plays — he has 11 career interceptions and will throw some passes up for grabs. If the Broncos can generate enough pressure to force him into quick throws and poor decisions, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. could finally be in position to make plays they haven’t made often as opposing quarterbacks avoid throwing at them.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
–Out: QB Derek Carr (ankle), T Austin Howard (shoulder)
–Doubtful: S Karl Joseph (toe)
–Questionable: WR Amari Cooper (shoulder), WR Michael Crabtree (ankle), WR Andre Holmes (shoulder), DT Stacy McGee (groin), G Kelechi Osemele (ankle), RB Jalen Richard (shoulder), LB Perry Riley (hamstring), LB Malcolm Smith (hamstring)
–Out: TE A.J. Derby (concussion), S T.J. Ward (concussion), LB DeMarcus Ware (back), CB Kayvon Webster (concussion), DE Derek Wolfe (neck)
–Questionable: LB Brandon Marshall (hamstring)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Broncos TE Jeff Heuerman. In the past two weeks, he finally began playing like the contributor the Broncos expected him to be when they selected him in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. With more playing time because of concussions suffered by Virgil Green and A.J. Derby, Heuerman played 29 snaps last Sunday and was second on the Broncos with three receptions for 32 yards. With a 17.1-yard average on his seven receptions this year, Heuerman has been effective finding gaps in deep zone coverage.
FAST FACTS: The Raiders have clinched their first playoff berth since 2002. Raiders RB Latavius Murray ranks fifth in the NFL with 12 rushing TDs, the most by a Raider since 1990. He rushed for 114 yards and three TDs in the last meeting. … Oakland WR Amari Cooper ranks fourth in the AFC with 1,110 receiving yards. He is the ninth player in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons. … Raiders DE Khalil Mack has 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in his past 10 games. He is the first Raider with 10 sacks in back-to-back seasons since Derrick Burgess in 2005-06. … Broncos QB Trevor Siemian passed for 283 yards and two TDs in the last meeting. Rookie QB Paxton Lynch passed for 223 yards and a score in his last home start. … Broncos RB Devontae Booker ranks fourth among NFL rookies with 555 rushing yards. … Denver WR Demaryius Thomas leads the team with 86 catches and 1,036 yards. He needs four catches to become the third player in NFL history with five consecutive seasons of 90 receptions, 1,000 yards and five TD catches.
PREDICTION: This game will be determined by the running game, and the Raiders have enough ground beef to keep the pressure off McGloin and secure that first-round bye.
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.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: 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.
FAST FACTS: 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.
PREDICTION: The Broncos have everything on the line, but they just don’t have enough offense to keep up with the AFC’s best team.
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).