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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Denver scarier than Broncos

The Patriots take on the Broncos in Denver, a place where Tom Brady and New England have struggled to win over the years.

There are few places or situations in which Tom Brady's Patriots don't have an impressive record of success.

Denver is atop that list.

Heading into Sunday afternoon's game between the Patriots (11-2) and the defending champion Broncos (8-5) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Brady is 2-7 all time in Denver, including 0-3 in the postseason.

As such, the New England quarterback was asked this week what is so difficult about playing in Denver. With options like a hearty home crowd or the effects of altitude as options, Brady instead fell back on a more practical if potentially incomplete line of reasoning.

"I think they've had really good teams. More so than where you play, it's how you play," Brady said. "We just need to play better than the way we've been playing out there. It's a great place to play. They've got great fans. Coach [Bill Belichick] said they've sold out every game for like the last 45 years or something like that. It's definitely one of the louder places so our communication is going to be really important.

"Number 58 [Von Miller] on the other side of the ball is a lot more dangerous, and 94 [DeMarcus Ware], than the people in the crowd, so we're going to have to do a good job handling all those guys up front. They've got a great rush group. They've got a great coverage group. They're exceptional in a lot of ways and they've been that way for a long time, so it's going to be a big challenge for us."

Sane, logical thinking knows that Brady is right. But sometimes sports don't feel sane or seem to follow the laws of logic.

It just feels like something always happens in Denver that sets in motion a Broncos win. It happened twice a year ago with Chris Harper's muffed punt in the regular season and Stephen Gostkowski's missed PAT in the AFC Championship Game.

The reality is that right now the Patriots are the better, more balanced football team heading into Sunday's game. The Broncos surely still have an elite pass defense, one that includes elite coverage and pass rush. But New England is coming off arguably its best win of the season, beating the Ravens and their No. 1 defense with an impressive effort on both sides of the ball.

Reason says the Patriots are the favorite to win Sunday. Reason says the Broncos are fighting for their playoff lives because they're not as deep, good or efficient as they were a year ago on the way to Super Bowl glory.

But for some reason, the Patriots tend to struggle to win in Denver. That's a reality that New England will face again, with cold temperatures a part of the equation.

Can the Patriots win Sunday in Denver? Heck yeah. Should they? Probably.

But will they?

Here are a few keys to a potential Patriots victory in the house of horrors that has been trips to Denver over the years.

PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 15 game against the Denver Broncos.

Start fast - The Patriots lead the NFL with 103 first-quarter points this season. They are also tied with the Raiders for fewest first-quarter points allowed with just 29. New England's plus-74 first- quarter point differential is 31 points better than the next best first-quarter team, Pittsburgh. Conversely, Denver has scored just 23 points in the first quarter, fewest in the NFL leading to a minus-47 point differential in the opening 15 minutes of games. On paper that should allow Bill Belichick's team to get out to a nice lead early in the cold, Mile High air. That would be a nice step toward taking the home crowd out of the game and working towards exorcising the Patriots demons in Denver. Belichick has said in the past that stats are for losers, but these stats seem to be very much for New England winners.

Blount force offense - LeGarrette Blount may just be the key to the Patriots game plan. That's a huge difference from last January when the back was long on injured reserve and Brady had no running game to turn to against the Broncos. In fact, Brady was actually New England's leading rusher the AFC title loss with just 13 yards. A lot has changed heading into this week, though. Blount is a 1,000-yard back coming off an impressive performance with 18 carries for 72 yards against the Ravens No. 1 rush defense. It was one of 10 different games Blount has had 18 or more carries this season. On the other side of the ball the Broncos have the NFL's 29th run defense, allowing 127.2 yards per game on the ground. Opponents have averaged 30 carries per game against Denver. And that porous front could be playing without its two starting linebackers as Brandon Marshall (Out) and Todd Davis (Questionable) both missed practice this week. It would be stunning if the Patriots don't look to run the ball early and relatively often against the Broncos. It should produce yards on the ground and help open things up for Brady and the passing game.

Fine line - Speaking of the passing game, New England's was completely derailed by Miller and the Denver pass rush last January. The Broncos officially hit Brady 17 times, but it certainly felt like more than that to all who watched and likely to the QB himself. Miller is back at it this fall, tied for the NFL lead with 13.5 sacks for a Broncos defense that leads the league in sacks per pass play. Denver has six guys with at least two sacks. But, the Patriots offensive line is better suited to deal with the rush than a year ago. Nate Solder is back in the mix at left tackle. Marcus Cannon is playing far better football. And David Andrews seems to be an upgrade over Bryan Stork in the middle while Joe Thuney has been an impressive rookie at left guard. It's all being orchestrated by Dante Scarnecchia. That's all a bonus for the visitors on Sunday. The line can also help itself out by getting the ground game going to keep Denver from getting to comfortable in the pass rush. It won't be easy against Miller and Co., but it may just be a bit fairer fight this time around in the trenches trying to protect Brady. 

No big pass plays- If the Patriots avoid big pass plays - allowing them to the Broncos offense and giving up them to the Denver defense - it could make the game almost unwinnable for the home squad. Defensively the Broncos still have the No. 1 pass unit. That's not just about the ferocious front but also arguably the best trio of cornerbacks in the game today in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby. The three have combined for seven interceptions and three touchdowns. They can kill an opposing passing attack while boosting their own team with either field position or even points. Brady had an uncharacteristic bad throw to Eric Weddle in the end zone last Monday, the type of decision/throw he needs to avoid on Sunday. On the flip side, Denver's passing game is really built on just two guys in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who've combined for 150-plus catches for nearly 1,900 yards and 10 scores. They are the guys that Trevor Siemian will be looking for early and often. They both have had big days and big plays against New England in the past. Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler and the rest of the pass defense - it could be a week for Duron Harmon to see more action as the fifth DB with two high safeties - must take away Denver's top and really only two options in the passing game. Avoid giving Denver big plays in the air and the home team's chances of winning should fade into the thin air.

Keep the defense running - The Broncos cannot run the ball, ranking 27th in the league in rushing. New England's run defense has been on the rise, reaching No. 6 in the league rankings. The Patriots have held three straight opponents to 3.0 yards per carry or worse and without a run longer than 9 yards. That's an impressive stretch that can and will need to continue against a Broncos team that really hasn't had a good performance by a running back since C.J. Anderson was lost to injury. Alan Branch and Co. have another opportunity to show their stuff by stuffing the opponent's run game and creating one-dimensional chances for the Patriots evolving pass defense. That's the plan and the plan should be able to come together.

Prediction - Everything but the location of the game says the Patriots should win on Sunday. New England is the better team playing better football. But, it's hard to get the ghosts of Denver trips past out of our minds. Still, there is no reason that Blount shouldn't run more than enough to help out Brady and the passing game. There is no reason New England shouldn't shut down the Denver rushing attack to put all the pressure - literally and figuratively -- on the young passer Siemian. Maybe strange things will happen in Mile High. Maybe the Patriots will make mistakes and the Broncos will make big plays. Certainly this is a must-win game for Gary Kubiak's team looking to defend its title as its playoff chances grow less likely by the week. Must-win situations can make for dangerous opponents But Brady should lead the Patriots to a solid, comfortable 24-13 victory over the Broncos, and over whatever it is that makes playing in Denver tough for New England. Brady and Co. roll on, picking up momentum and impressive victories on the way toward the postseason.

What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!

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