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Keys to the Game presented by Carmax: Out-of-practice Pats brace for Broncos

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The 2-2 Patriots close out the first part of their season as they welcome the 1-3 Denver Broncos on Monday night, the second week in a row the team's gameday has been pushed a day due to a positive COVID-19 test. For a team used to setting records, they'll now be part of a new one as they attempt to play a professional football with at most one actual practice that could come Saturday.

The Patriots put up an admirable effort in Kansas City, but ultimately cost themselves the chance at knocking off the Chiefs due to their own mistakes. This week, the Broncos are decimated and expected to again be down to their own third-string quarterback, with some of his best weapons like Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant on the sidelines.

Under normal circumstances New England might look like easy favorites at home, but this season is anything but normal and the Patriots are also expected to be down their best players on both sides of the ball.

Can New England build off of their performance last week with practically no in-person preparation and get back in the win column before the bye week?

Here are this week's Keys to the Game presented by Carmax.

Eliminate Bad Football

Just a handful of bad football plays drastically changed the Patriots last game and they can't afford to continue with bad ball security and poor clock management. Avoiding those kinds of mistakes have been hallmarks in Foxborough for a long time and it's a good bet the Patriots have been stressing it all week via their team WebEx calls.

The main focus of this is at the quarterback position, where it's unknown who will be under center for the Pats. With potentially only one on-field practice, whoever the Patriots signal caller is will have his hands full processing the game plan, but the most important part of the message remains the same – be safe with the ball and make good decisions.

The undermanned Broncos will need to prey on New England turnovers to help them generate offense and the Patriots cannot make it easy on them. It's a lot to ask of a team, playing mistake-free football when they're facing an unprecedented week of minimal preparation, but mistakes are likely what will define this game.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Denver Broncos.

Run, Run, Run

There's no secret the Patriots have had a resurgent ground game this season, they currently possess the third-ranked rushing attack in the NFL based on Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings. Each of their four main backs have made key contributions at certain points, while fullback Jakob Johnson continues to progress in front of them, opening up holes.

Rookie offensive lineman Mike Onwenu continues to draw praise for his strong start this season. A powerful mauler with surprising athleticism, Onwenu is also versatile. Adding him to the mix with Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn has eased some of the potential problems faced by not having three starters last week.

Denver's run defense might be the strongest part of their team, coming in at ninth in DVOA, so this will be a key area to watch. If both teams contain the other's rushing attack it could turn into a real slog.

The offensive line and the backs will be the catalysts to victory and if they can produce some explosive plays on the ground for the third week in a row, they'll continue to expand their capabilities and impact on the game.

Finish

Yes, the mistake stood out against the Chiefs, but really it was a lack of finish that cost them the most, leaving points on the board and passing up chances to tie or take the lead on multiple occasions. Finishing in the red zone with touchdowns is a vital key this week to put Denver on their heels and force them into the weakest part of their game – relying on their quarterback to throw.

The Broncos are second in the league with six interceptions thrown, with Brett Rypien having four in his two games of action. If Denver gets behind they won't be in a good spot to come back.

Everything gets tighter in the red zone and it's where the best quarterbacks separate themselves by throwing with good anticipation into tight windows. Asking that of either Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer might be a lot considering the vast circumstances, that's why the Patriots must make the most of their chances, something they didn't do enough of on offense against the Chiefs.

Defense raising expectations

The Patriots defense had one of their best games in recent memory against the Chiefs. They were stout against the run and totally in sync on the back end as they deployed a variety of coverages that confounded Patrick Mahomes for much of the game.

Can the defense start producing full 60-minute efforts playing that way? It will be a little tougher without Stephon Gilmore who is expected to sit out, but there is still plenty of depth to make up for his absence.

It all starts up front, where the Pats have been disruptive and productive. Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart, Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler have shown they're capable of doing it all and keeping Melvin Gordon contained will be a critical component of the gameplan out of the gate. John Simon's hard edge-setting ways will again be extremely valuable.

Then it comes down to the effective pass rushers like Chase Winovich and Shilique Calhoun who have been consistently showing up early in the season. If they can continue that they'll surely force the Broncos into mistakes.

The defense showed how good they can be last week and raised expectations. Against the Broncos it would be great to see them play at that level again, but a week almost entirely devoid of practice will make it a very tough ask.

Prediction

For the second week in a row the Patriots are in unprecedented territory and that earns them some understanding across the board for however this game turns out. Still, they're the better team and knowing they can catch their breath afterwards on the bye week should be a good motivator to leave it all out on the field. If they can just avoid the big mistakes they should be able to win, even if it doesn't look as pretty as we'd like.

Patriots 20, Broncos 10

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