The 3-3 Patriots will do battle with the 5-2 Denver Broncos this Sunday at 4:15 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
Sunday's game will be a key matchup for both teams in what could shape up to be a highly competitive AFC. While the Patriots need a win to end a three-game losing streak and inch closer to the AFC East leading Miami Dolphins (5-2, with a bye this week), the Broncos look to add to an impressive record and keep pace in an extremely tight AFC West. Additionally, conference records could turn out to be a key tie breaker later in the season as races develop for the two Wild Card playoff spots.
The Broncos come to Gillette for the first time, but have been a common New England opponent as the two teams will be meeting each other for the eighth consecutive season. Denver is coming off of an overtime, 37-34 win last week over the Chiefs in Kansas City.
Shanahan leads Broncos herd
Under eighth-year head coach Mike Shanahan the Broncos have utilized a formidable, athletic defense and an increasingly potent offensive attack in their five wins this season. Since taking over in Denver in 1995 Shanahan has been the unifying force of the entire Broncos organization. Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick was quick to point out this week that the bulk of the credit for Denver's success in recent years has to go to Shanahan.
"I think it goes without saying that Denver is a real good football team," Belichick said. "They are strong in every area and it starts with Shanahan. Mike is clearly as good as anybody in the league at what he does. He's just an outstanding coach. This is a big challenge for us this week and we'll need to be at our best. This is a real impressive team coming in here."
"Strategically, I think they do a good job of utilizing their personnel and he presents a lot of scheme problems for you as a coach. He does a good job of seeing how he matches up against your personnel and then putting you in a position that is tough. Usually you are sitting there early in the game saying, 'ok, I see what he's after, this is going to be a problem, how are we going to try to fix it?'"
And 2002 is looking like a typical Broncos season under Shanahan as the team appears to be heading for post season action.
Defensively the Broncos have the NFL's fifth ranked overall defense, while ranking first against the run. Through seven games, Denver has held opponents to an average of just 75.0 rushing yards per game. The talented unit is led by an extremely speedy group of linebackers consisting of Al Wilson, , Ian Gold and John Mobley. The group ranks first through third on the team with 82, 64 and 59 tackles respectively.
The Broncos are also skilled against the pass as they rank 13th in the NFL. Defensive end Kavika Pittman has already totaled six sacks, while corner back Deltha O'Neal leads the team with three interceptions. The Denver pass defense may not garner as much attention as the rush defense, but it forces teams to think carefully about how best to attack the talented unit.
Offensively the Broncos are led by Brian Griese, a quarterback who is seemingly becoming more confident and settled on a weekly basis. Griese has throw for more than 300 yards in four consecutive games and solidified his role as team leader after a somewhat shaky start to the 2002 season. The quarterback has totaled 169 completions on 261 attempts for 1,887 yards and 12 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
In the running game rookie standout Clinton Portis has led the way with 88 carries for 451 yards and two touchdowns. The first-year player out of Miami has impressed Belichick on film, especially with his explosive potential.
"He's a speed back," Belichick said. "Mike Anderson and Terrell Davis, those guys are in the 220-pound or even the 230-pound range. I think Portis is closer to 200 or 205, but he has speed. He's fast. He's a breakaway guy. He's got good quickness, real good hands, he's a good runner and can hit you on all fronts. He definitely has long-ball ability. He can take an eight-year run and stretch it out and go."
The Broncos also have one of the best all-around receiving corps in all of football. Wide receivers Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and rookie Ashley Lelie, as well as tight end Shannon Sharpe, create one of the most difficult groups to defend in the league. Smith leads the team with 42 receptions for 487 yards and two touchdowns, while Sharpe is coming off of a record-setting game in which he totaled 214 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
As a team the Broncos come to New England not only riding a high after a big division win but seemingly improving in all areas of the game as the season develops. The well-coached, highly talented team will present quite a test for the Patriots as they return from the bye week looking to get back on the winning track. Denver will make the task anything but easy for the defending Super Bowl champions.
The two teams have met 36 times over the years with the Broncos holding a 22-14 advantage in the series. ... The Broncos have not scored fewer than 22 points in a game this season. ... The last meeting between teams came last year with the Broncos winning 31-20 in Denver. ... The Patriots did not force a turnover against the Packers last game, snapping a streak of 19 consecutive games with a forced turnover. ... Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown a touchdown pass in eight consecutive games dating back to last season. ... 10 different Patriots have caught touchdown passes this season, the highest touchdown distribution in the NFL. ... Patriots rookie wide receiver Deion Branch tops NFL rookies with 37 receptions and 408 yards receiving.