At long last, the 2-2 Patriots will finally welcome the 1-3 Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon, after being twice delayed from last weekend. Those schedule changes bought time for both teams to get healthy, but it came at the price of an early and unexpected bye week.
It seems like ages ago that we last saw the Patriots put up their admirable effort in Kansas City, but with Cam Newton expected to return, this should be a much better offense than the one that shot themselves in the foot repeatedly against the Chiefs.
The Broncos are also expected to welcome back some starters, including quarterback Drew Lock and running back Phillip Lindsay. Both should significantly boost Denver's chances, as could Noah Fant, still listed as questionable.
Altogether, this matchup looks vastly different than it did a week ago, but the keys remain largely the same. What does New England need to do to get back to the form that hasn't been seen since September?
Here are this week's Keys to the Game presented by Carmax.
Eliminate Bad Football
The loss in Kansas City came in a way foreign to most Patriots losses over the last two decades, rarely do they prevent themselves from having a chance to win the game but that's what they did with critical turnovers and mistakes.
Now, after a tumultuous two weeks and limited practices, a bigger spotlight is on being safe with the football and making good decisions. Will rust play a factor? Practices have been sporadic, with a walkthrough coming last Saturday and now just two regular practices this week. Both teams have experienced the fits and starts and they've made for a challenging schedule.
A hallmark of the Patriots team is not beating themselves and no matter the layoff and circumstances, it's a good bet they won't do it for a second game in a row, especially with their starting quarterback under center. The easiest path to a victory will come by letting the young Broncos to be the ones to make the critical game-changing mistakes.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Denver Broncos.
Run, Run, Run
The Patriots currently possess the third-ranked rushing attack in the NFL based on Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings and there's little debate it's the strength of the offense. Each of the Pats four main backs have made key contributions at certain points, while fullback Jakob Johnson continues to progress in front of them, opening up holes.
Upfront, the offensive line has led the way. Rookie offensive lineman Mike Onwenu continues to draw praise for his strong start this season, adding him to the mix with Joe Thuney and Isaiah Wynn has eased some of the potential problems faced by not having three starters against the Chiefs.
Denver's run defense might be the strongest part of their team, coming in at seventh in DVOA, so this will be a key area to watch. The Patriots will hope for Damien Harris to build on his 100-yard effort against the Chiefs. Whichever team gets their ground game going will likely gain early control of the game.
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 to throw the ball into the teeth of the Patriots ball-hawking secondary.
Everything gets tighter in the red zone and it's where the best quarterbacks separate themselves by throwing with good anticipation into tight windows. The Patriots currently rank 23rd in Red Zone offense, a number they'll need to improve on to compete with the best teams.
Can new red zone threats develop or emerge? The Patriots have been extremely effective in short yardage near the goal line, save one big play in Seattle, but finishing drives through the air remains a consistent challenge. Watch for N'Keal Harry and the tight ends for increased contributions in this area.
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. Now, they've raised the bar.
Can the defense start producing full 60-minute efforts playing that way? There's plenty of reason for optimism, though the team must continue to navigate personnel issues as injuries and illness have hit the defensive line hard.
The defense showed how good they can be and against the Broncos, it would be great to see them play at that level again. That's the kind of defense they'll need to make some noise in the AFC, they must continue to build their confidence and trust.
Things will only get tougher for them going forward against some of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL.
This is a huge 'get-back-on-track' game for the Patriots and perhaps expecting them to just pick up where they left off now that Newton is back might be a lofty expectation. Still, the Patriots should have all the pieces to get the win at home, though Denver is now a lot more formidable than they would've been last weekend. Expect a good back-and-forth game as the two teams look to set their trajectory for the rest of their seasons, with the Patriots making the late plays to pull away.
Patriots 23, Broncos 16