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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: A Mile High challenge

New England exits the bye week with a trek to Denver to kick off its road trip against the struggling Broncos.


On paper Sunday night's battle between the Patriots (6-2) and Broncos (3-5) in Denver doesn't stack up as an overly competitive game.

Tom Brady leads New England into the Mile High City riding a four-game winning streak, coming out of the bye rested and ready for a second-half run.

On the other sideline will be Brock Osweiler, who's once again the starter in Denver for a Broncos team that's lost four in a row coming off last Sunday's embarrassing 51-23 beatdown in Philadelphia.

Brady has the Patriots tied for the best record in the conference and in position for another postseason run.

Osweiler is the QB-of-the-minute for a Denver team that's destined for another disappointing season despite a still very talented defense.

But things don't always work out as planned when the Patriots go to Denver. In fact, they often don't work out at all, with New England sporting a 3-7 record in Mile High since 2001. Marry that with a recent 3-3 mark over the last six years coming out of the bye week as well as this Patriots team being in the midst of a 2017 season in which every game seems to be a fight to the finish and there is plenty for New England to prove on Sunday night in Denver.

"There's little margin of error when you go out there," Brady said. "We're going to have to play good. They have a great defense. They have great players on both sides of the ball. You can't go out there and make a bunch of mistakes and expect to win."

And while Denver might be somewhat desperate to get back in the win column, New England is desperate to get off to a good start on the second half of the season that includes five of the next six games on the road.

"I think at this point, all these wins are important for every team," Brady said. "No one likes to lose, obviously. We feel that way. We've lost games and there's definitely urgency. You learn a lot from the losses and everyone wants to get the bad taste out of their mouth. Any time you lose that's how you feel. I'm sure they feel that way. We felt that way this year. It's still going to come down to how well you prepare and play this particular week. What happened last week or next week isn't going to matter much. It's really what we do this week. We're going to have to play good to beat them. Hopefully, we can go execute and make a bunch of plays and that will take care of a lot of things for us."

As the Patriots and Broncos prepare to renew their rivalry with the chance to prove their execution levels on Sunday night, here are some of the possible keys to just how this prime time battle in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains might play out.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 10 matchup with the Denver Broncos.

Spikes Peak –Rob Gronkowski has had a lot of success over his career against the Broncos, notching seven touchdowns in seven games. That means there is a good chance that the big tight end, who has five touchdowns in seven games played this season, will get the chance to put forth his Gronk Spike at Sports Authority Field on Sunday night. Beyond Gronkowski's success against the Broncos – and most defenses – is the fact that the strength of the Denver defense is on the outside at cornerback. Unless the Broncos decide to put Aqib Talib on Gronkowski, the tight end should have a good matchup in the middle of the field. Given Denver's pass rush, Brady will be looking to get rid of the ball quickly and to his most trusted targets. That and history tell us this could be a big game for Gronkowski.

Stout brew – Denver wants to run the ball. They believe their offense, which is limited by its quarterback play, needs to succeed on the ground and stay in short third-down situations. That means C.J. Anderson will be given the chance to run early and often against a Patriots run defense that's missing Malcom Brown (ankle) and Dont'a Hightower (IR/pectoral). With those two guys out two weeks ago against the Chargers, New England allowed 157 yards on the ground. The run defense has been up and down this season, but overall ranks 25th in the league. Alan Branch needs to pick up the slack and lead the front, while both Elandon Roberts and David Harris could be asked to do the same. The edges, including Cassius Marsh, have also been an issue. If the Broncos get the ground game going it will be a big first step toward the home horses pulling off the upset.

Let's Go! –Brady is always jazzed up and looking for a fast start. Bill Belichick often reminds reporters that his team always tries to get out to an early lead and play the game from ahead. That could be especially important this week. The Broncos have lost four in a row and are coming off an embarrassing blowout. The talented defense continues to be put in bad positions by the QB-less offense. That offense turns the ball over at a reckless pace with 19 giveaways in just eight games. The Eagles jumped on the Broncos and pulled away early last week. Brady and Co. will be trying to do the same. An early scoring drive combined with a defensive stop might just suck the life out of both the home crowd and the home defense.

Get the protection right – Runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year Award last fall, Von Miller remains one of the truly elite pass rushers in the game. Struggles in pass protection are often an issue any time Brady struggles, including the infamous AFC title loss in Denver in 2015. Though Dante Scarnecchia said during the bye that he felt the pass protection had improved the previous couple weeks, the front will play without right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle). LaAdrian Waddle will likely get the start after coming on for competitive fill-in work against the Chargers. But a night game in Denver against Miller and Co. is a different beast for Waddle and the rest of a line that's given up too many sacks and QB hits this season. Brady will get rid of the ball quickly, as he did against L.A., but he still needs protection. And it seems like Miller always gets at least one hit on Brady that leaves fans holding their breath to make sure the G.O.A.T. gets up.

7 > 3: One of the big issues in the last month leading up the bye was failure to execute in the red zone. Brady and Belichick both lamented about struggles, settling for too many field goal attempts. It was a clear focal point of improvement during the bye. Now we'll find out whether it worked. Kicking field goals in Denver would keep the low-scoring home team in the game and would fuel the upset bid. The return of Martellus Bennett should help the red zone offense, but his status for this game remains uncertain based on both his shoulder injury and his late arrival back in New England. If Brady, Gronkowski and the usual suspects (minus the injured Chris Hogan) can't get the job done in the red zone it could dogfight all night. This will be a key battle between the NFL's No. 19 red zone offense and its 20th red zone defense. The winner of the battle of middling units could decide the game.

Prediction: Denver is different. It just is. It's probably a combination of a good team in front of a good crowd with a unique home-field advantage thanks to the altitude. Whatever it is, a Patriots team that pretty much dominated the NFL in every situation for nearly two decades has major issues in the Mile High City. That has to be a concern for anyone paying attention, regardless of how the Broncos have played of late. New England has moved the ball well even with the points held down in recent games. That will be tested against the NFL's No. 1 third-down defense, a unit that's No. 2 overall in yards allowed. Brady will need to be careful throwing to the outsides, but he should find success to Gronkowski and his passing backs if given time from the line. Dion Lewis could be an intriguing option as both a runner and a receiver in this one. Defensively the expected return of Stephon Gilmore offers more options in the back end, but he must prove himself a fit in the pass defense. If the front stops the run, that puts a lot of pressure on Osweiler to make plays. He usually doesn't respond well to that pressure. And the Broncos should give the defense a chance to pull off a couple turnovers. That will be key, because Denver simply doesn't lose (31 victories in a row, longest active streak in the NFL) when it wins the turnover battle. In the end, all signs point to another tough game in a tough place. But the Patriots are the better team, playing better football with more to play for coming out of the bye. That should all be enough for a 27-24 victory.It probably won't be easy or pretty. But it will be a nice start to the second half of the season for the defending champs as they work to play themselves into mid- and late-season form.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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