Picture it, a well-coached team that entered the 2003 season with a lot of talent and a good chance at postseason play that has been decimated by a number of key injuries. No, it's not a description of the Patriots, but rather New England's opponent this week, the Denver Broncos.
After starting the season 4-0 the Broncos have fallen victim to the injury bug, losing three of its last four games and in danger of falling even further behind the 8-0 Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. The team is without two of its starting linebackers, John Mobley and Ian Gold and is working under the guidance of third-string quarterback Danny Kanell.
Suddenly a game that Patriots fans probably circled as a loss before the start of the season appears to be much more winnable. On paper, a team that is 1-12 in its last 13 trips to the Mile High city would appear to have a rather solid chance of returning home for the bye week with a win.
But while Patriots fans may be looking past this banged up group of Broncos and thinking about the prospects of heading into the post-bye schedule with a 7-2 record, no one in the New England locker room is prepared to fall victim to such a trap, as evident by Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick's response to a reporter's somewhat sarcastic suggestion on Wednesday that considering the injuries to Denver the Patriots would "probably win easily?"
"What are you kidding me," Belichick responded. "That is the same thing that people were saying a couple of weeks ago against us, 'Well this guy is out and that guy is out, maybe we just ought to save the plane fare.'"
The New England players echoed s similar sentiment.
"Traditionally it is always tough to go to Denver and beat those guys out there, especially on Monday Night," guard Damien Woody said. "Their backs are a little bit against the wall right now. They really need to win this game. Both teams really need to win this game. So this might be the toughest game of the year going out there and playing those guys out there. So we are going to have to execute."
In fact the players and coaches alike are working hard to avoid not only the potential pitfalls of underestimating Monday's opponent, but also those of allowing themselves to become distracted by some of the exterior factors that come with playing in Denver.
"I don't have any thoughts on Mile High," Tedy Bruschi said. "I don't have any thoughts on Monday Night. I only have thoughts on the Denver Broncos, the guys that put on that helmet, the guys that put on that jersey. That's the only way we need to look at it this week. It's not [about] a Monday Night game and everybody is watching. It's [that] they are a good team, they've got a great coaching staff. They'll come up with some things that will be tough for us to adjust against. So prepare your butts off this week and be in the film room all day every day.
"Whether it is Danny Kanell or John Elway back there I am going to prepare the same and I think a lot of us in this locker room are going to prepare the same because it's just about getting our seventh victory."
So Belichick is simply getting his team ready to play in what he knows can be a very hostile environment. All external factors aside, just as it has been in the previous eight weeks, the outcome of Monday's game will be decided by players, plays and the events that take place on the football field and not much else.
"What are you going to do about it," Belichick questioned referencing the altitude? "We are both playing on the same field as far as I know. I have lived in Denver. I have coached teams out there with it. We have gone out there and won when we played well. We have gone out there and lost when we haven't played well. Three years ago we won out there. Two years ago we lost. I don't think the air beat us. I don't think the air won for us either. I think either you go out there and you play better than the other team and win or you go out there and you don't play better than the other team and you lose. That is the bigger part of the problem. It is Denver that I am worried about. I am not really worried about the clouds and the air and how much hydrogen there is and all of that. I am worried about Denver."
For the first time in over a month the Patriots released an injury report that was shorter than the team's upcoming opponent on Wednesday morning. New England's report for this week's game in Denver includes 10 players, down from 14 a week ago. The list has two new faces, Christian Fauria (leg) and Richard Seymour (leg) while six others have made their way back to health.
Ted Washington (foot) and Ted Washington (leg) remain listed as out. Joe Andruzzi (shoulder), Je'Rod Cherry (knee), Fauria (leg), Ty Law (ankle/ribs), David Patten (knee) and Mike Vrabel (arm) are all listed as questionable. Tom Brady (arm) and Seymour (leg) are listed as probable.
Johnson, Washington, Cherry, Fauria and Law did not practice on Wednesday.
Like the Patriots, the Broncos have been hit pretty hard with the injury bug this season and listed 12 players on Wednesday's injury report. Linebacker John Mobley (neck), quarterback Jake Plummer (foot) and tackle Ephraim Salaam (knee) are all listed as out for Denver. Wide receiver Chris Cole (ankle) and wide receiver Ed McCaffrey (quadriceps) are listed as questionable. Linebacker Keith Burns (knee), fullback Reuben Droughns (shoulder), defensive tackle Daryl Gardener (wrist), quarterback Danny Kanell (finger), safety Kenoy Kennedy (ankle), center Tom Nalen (ankle) and tight end Shannon Sharpe are all listed as probable.
Patriots second-year tight end Daniel Graham was named AFC Offensive Player of the week in recognition of his career-high seven receptions for 110 yards in last week's 9-3 win over the Browns. The Cleveland defense had entered the game with the NFL's sixth-ranked defense and had not allowed an opposing receiver more than 90 yards all season. Graham now has 16 receptions for 214 yards this season. … Je'Rod Cherry took advantage of his regular day off on Tuesday to take part in the Principal for a Day program organized by the Boston Plan for Excellence and Boston Public Schools and funded through a grant from the FleetBoston Financial Foundation. Cherry was one of 55 prominent people that took part in the program yesterday in the Boston Public Schools. He shared the principal duties at the Mary Lyon School in Brighton with Anne Finucane, chief marketing officer at FleetBoston Financial. … Former Patriots draft pick and training camp kicker Owen Pochman.