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Game preview: New England at Denver

DENVER (Jan. 11, 2006) -- John Elway retired instead of going for a third consecutive Super Bowl victory. His former team now can prevent Tom Brady from having a shot at it.

Brady tries to build his legend in the city where Elway became one, looking to lift the New England Patriots one step closer to making NFL history when they visit the Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff game.

New England enters with an NFL-record, 10-game playoff winning streak under coach Bill Belichick, including winning three of the past four Super Bowls. Last season, the Patriots became the first back-to-back NFL champions since Elway and the Broncos in 1998.

No team has won three consecutive Super Bowls.

To have a chance at doing it, the Patriots will have to get there without having home-field advantage and might have to win twice on the road. Of their 10 victories during the record streak, only two were away from home -- at Pittsburgh in the 2001 and 2004 AFC championship games.

"If we don't play our most consistent brand of football -- I don't care whether it is on the road or at home -- we are not going to win," Brady said.

New England will face a Broncos team coming off a bye week that is playing host to its first playoff game at Invesco Field. Denver hasn't played a home playoff game since Elway led the team to a 23-10 victory against the New York Jets in the 1998 AFC championship game at Mile High Stadium. Two weeks later, the Broncos won their second successive Super Bowl with a 34-19 victory against Atlanta.

Denver hasn't won a playoff game since. It has been blown out in wild-card games the past two years at Indianapolis and also lost in Baltimore after the 2000 season. Those defeats have intensified the pressure on coach Mike Shanahan to prove he can win in the postseason without No. 7 behind center.

"I think there is a sense of urgency in the playoffs," said Shanahan, who is 7-4 in the postseason with the Broncos. "You have to do what you have been doing, and you have to focus the same way and prepare the same way."

Belichick knows the Patriots have to limit mistakes on the road, especially in an environment where the Broncos have won 10 consecutive regular-season games and are 11-2 in the postseason.

"The Denver Broncos will be our toughest challenge this season," he said. "To have any chance, it will take our best game and certainly a lot better performance than the last time we played them."

That was in Week 6, when the Broncos led by as many as 25 points in a 28-20 victory in Denver. The Patriots scored the game's final 17 points and had a chance to tie, but Brady threw three consecutive incompletions and after a punt, the Denver offense ran the final 3½ minutes off the clock.

Brady, who has 21 successful comebacks from ties or deficits in the fourth quarter and overtime, finished 24-for-46 for 299 yards and one touchdown.

He is 1-3 against the Broncos, throwing for seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

"We don't want to get down 28-3 like we did the last time," Brady said. "You have to go out there and come out firing and try to play your best and keep it close."

Denver will see a different look from the Patriots this time. In Week 6, New England was playing its fourth road game in five weeks and had 18 players on the injured list, including running backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk, wide receiver Troy Brown, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and defensive end Richard Seymour.

As a result, a makeshift Patriots defense allowed 178 rushing yards and gave up three plays of 50 yards or more.

"We are not going to say we were banged up or we didn't have anybody," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "We went out there and we faced them like men. They beat us, but none of that really matters right now."

Since that loss, which dropped the Patriots to 3-3, New England's defense has allowed only four plays of 50 yards or more and given up an average of 83.2 rushing yards in 11 games. In the Patriots' 28-3 victory against Jacksonville in an AFC wild-card matchup on Jan. 7, McGinest set NFL postseason records with 4½ sacks in the game and 16 in his playoff career. New England's defense, with Bruschi sitting out, allowed 87 yards on the ground.

Bruschi didn't play due to a calf injury and is listed as questionable for the Jan. 14 night game, but that didn't faze a team that has dealt with plenty of adversity.

"We're going to keep fighting, I know we will keep fighting," Brady said. "We'll get ready to play the toughest game of the year."

The Broncos would like to get the league's No. 2 rushing offense going at home, where they have outscored opponents by a 2-to-1 margin (262-131) in the past 10 games, rushing for 176.9 yards per game and allowing an average of 72.8.

Denver has rushed for 150 or more yards in eight of those games and boasts a two-back threat in Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. That duo totaled 171 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Week 6.

"A lot of respect. A lot of respect," Anderson said of the Patriots. "Utmost respect for those guys, because they've done it and they've done it again."

Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, named to his first Pro Bowl this week, makes the first home playoff start of his nine-year career.

Plummer has retooled his game since coming to Denver in 2003 by limiting his mistakes. He suffered only seven interceptions this season for the second time in three years and set a franchise record with 229 consecutive passes without an interception.

Like Brady, Plummer has 21 come-from-behind victories.

"You are going to make mistakes and you hope that they are not big ones," Plummer said. "I'm going to come out fighting as I always have."

Denver holds a 24-15 advantage in the all-time series, including a 16-8 home record. The teams have met once in the postseason, when the Broncos won 22-17 in a 1986 divisional matchup.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Patriots -- 1st place, AFC East; beat Jacksonville Jaguars 28-3, wild-card round. Broncos -- 1st place, AFC West; first-round bye.

PATRIOTS LEADERS: Offense -- Brady, 4,110 passing yards and 26 passing TDs; Dillon, 733 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs; Deion Branch, 78 receptions, 998 receiving yards and 5 receiving TDs. Defense -- Rosevelt Colvin, 7 sacks; Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel, 3 INTs.

BRONCOS LEADERS: Offense -- Plummer, 3,366 passing yards and 18 passing TDs; Anderson, 1,014 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs; Rod Smith, 85 receptions, 1,105 receiving yards and 6 receiving TDs. Defense -- Ebenezer Ekuban, Trevor Pryce and John Lynch, 4 sacks; Champ Bailey, 8 INTs.

PATRIOTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 94.5 ypg (24th in NFL); Passing Offense -- 257.5 ypg (2nd); Total Offense -- 352.0 ypg (7th). Rushing Defense -- 98.8 ypg (8th); Passing Defense -- 231.4 ypg (31st); Total Defense -- 330.2 ypg (26th).

BRONCOS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 158.7 yards per game (2nd); Passing Offense -- 201.7 ypg (18th); Total Offense -- 360.4 ypg (5th). Rushing Defense -- 85.2 ypg (2nd); Passing Defense -- 227.7 ypg (29th); Total Defense -- 312.9 ypg (15th).

LAST MEETING: Oct. 16; Broncos, 28-20. At Denver, Plummer threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns and Bell rushed for 114 yards on 13 carries in the Broncos' fifth straight win.

STREAKS AND NOTES: Patriots -- WR David Givens has a TD catch in six consecutive playoff games, second-best in NFL history to Pittsburgh's John Stallworth, who did it in eight straight. ... Brady has eight TDs and no INTs over his past four playoff games. ... RB Dillon has averaged 120 rushing yards in four career games against Denver, including a then-NFL single-game record 278 yards in 2000. Broncos -- Plummer's 134.4 rating against the Patriots in Week 6 was his highest of the season and third-highest of his career. ... WR Smith has recorded at least 100 receiving yards in four of his eight career starts versus the Patriots. ... The Broncos are 8-0 in home postseason games against opponents they faced in the regular season.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Patriots -- 5-3 on the road; Broncos -- 8-0 at home.

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