'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the land, only two teams were playing, Denver and New England. The Patriots are coming off a 27-17 loss to the Chiefs that dropped them to 3-11 on the season, while the Broncos playoff hopes are hanging by a string at 7-7. Russell Wilson has looked rejuvenated in 2023, but it's been a roller coaster season for Denver after losing five of their first six games, including a 70-20 loss to the Dolphins.
Denver is 6-2 in their last eight but they are coming off a 42-17 loss to the Lions that got away from them and thus, this is a must-win game for the Broncos to keep their playoff hopes alive
Here are the key things to watch as the two old rivals meet in one of the historically toughest places to play for the Patriots!
Zappe in the second half-y
Bailey Zappe's two starts have both had the same script, a strong start featuring some impressive throws in the first half and then a regression to the kind of turnovers and inability to move the ball that have plagued the offense for most of the 2023 season. Now, Zappe gets a third chance to see if he can turn a corner in the second half and reestablish himself and the offense and their ability to go down the field and score points. An area where it could be most challenging? New England's 29th-ranked third-down offense against Denver's 2nd-ranked third-down defense. As usual, third down is likely the down that will make or break this performance.
"For me personally, I think it's important for me to put a full game together," said Zappe this week. "First halves been great. Second halves haven't been so good. So, I think if I'm able to go out there and execute and run the offense the way it's supposed to be run for two halves, I think we'll score a lot more points. So that directly reflects on me doing my job well and then that relates to everybody else. So, I think that's for me, that's what I want to do."
Offensive Line Attrition
With Cole Strange placed on IR this week and Conor McDermott missing from practice, the Patriots will once again be doing some juggling along their offensive line. If Trent Brown can return from multiple injuries the left tackle concerns will be lessened, but it seems clear that rookie Atonio Mafi will take over for Strange. Mafi has played 304 snaps already this season at left guard so he won't be coming in without any experience. Still, that means David Andrews will have a pair of rookie guards around him and protection up the middle will be critical as they try to sort out Denver's pass rushers. Denver is 7th in blitz rate. But more important will be the line's role in the run game as New England tries to exploit Denver's run defense which is last in the league in both rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per attempt.
Young Guys Keep Getting Chances
Despite injuries striking the team hard last week, the silver lining is that it could mean increased opportunities for players like Mafi. Cornerbacks Alex Austin and Shaun Wade should both see a good share of snaps in Denver, while Kevin Harris was promoted to the 53-man roster this week and will be looking to build on his impressive 18-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs. With Jabrill Peppers missing from practice this week, rookie Marte Mapu is another player who could see a rise in snaps over these final three games after coming away with the first interception of his career last week. With playoffs no longer a possibility, the development of players who are still under contract for next season is the biggest thing to watch over these final three games.
Russell Wilson has been somewhat rejuvenated under coach Sean Payton, though it's been an up and down season overall for the Broncos. Wilson has over 2,400 passing yards with 24 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He's also added 321 rushing yards on the ground with three rushing touchdowns, as his ability to do damage outside of the pocket continues to be a timely problem for defense. Speedy linebacker Mack Wilson and edge rusher Josh Uche should play a key role in keeping Wilson contained, but just as we learned last week, they'll have to get to the quarterback and finish him off, otherwise Wilson is capable of doing major damage late in the down both with his arm and his legs.
[Russell] Wilson's definitely a problem," said coach Belichick. "Running, throwing, extended plays, similar to what we talked about last week with [Patrick] Mahomes, but runs more, runs more than probably any quarterback in the league other than [Lamar] Jackson."
Jeudy, Sutton vs. Banged-Up NE Secondary
With J.C. Jackson landing on the NFI list, banged-up veteran Jonathan Jones will be joined at cornerback by rookie Alex Austin and third-year cornerback Shaun Wade as outside options. They'll have a tough task facing a solid receiving core led by Jerry Jeudy (45 catches, 581 yards, 1 touchdown) and Cortland Sutton (58 catches, 770 yards, 10 touchdowns). Sutton is the primary focus of the passing attack and should see plenty of Jones, who has admirably fought through a season-long knee injury despite the team's struggles. But that will leave the lightly-experienced Wade, Austin and Myles Bryant to contend with the secondary targets who are capable players, including tight end Adam Trautman, receiver Marvin Mims and former Patriots Lil'Jordan Humphrey.
"[Courtland] Sutton's as good as there is – big guy, great hands, contested catches, a really hard guy to cover," said Belichick. "He's had tremendous production, especially down the field."
Denver D Progressing
"Defensively, they've really kind of hit their stride here the last few weeks, turn the ball over a lot, pretty well-balanced team," assessed Belichick this week. "[Zach] Allen, Josey [Jewell]'s been a really productive linebacker. Obviously, [Justin] Simmons and [Pat] Surtain [II] are two of the better DBs in the league. You can see their improvement over the course of the year."
Now, the Patriots will look to undo that progress with their banged-up and ever-adjusting offense that has played season-long musical chairs along the offensive line and at receiver. Denver is 25th in pass EPA, illustrating there could be some potential for plays to be made against them. They'll even split their time between man coverage (29.2%, 16th) and zone coverage (70.8%, 17th) as Zappe will have plenty to decipher from snap to snap. A return of Juju Smith-Schuster, who missed the Chiefs game following his best performance of the season against the Steelers, would help alleviate some of the pressure.
Ball security is a big key. Denver leads the league in forced fumbles and turnovers have been a big part of their turnaround.
"Turnovers have been a big thing," said Belichick. "They've done a good job of turning the ball over and playing good third down defense, and they've been really good in the return game. Those things really kind of sparked their last seven or eight games, whatever it's been, that they've won most of them."
Attack of the Young Runners
The Broncos 29th-ranked rush EPA defense has to have a big target on it for the Patriots, but can the Pats exploit it with Ezekiel Elliott and a host of newcomers? As mentioned above, Kevin Harris could see increased opportunity, but with the Broncos play so much base defense, they'll be facing some stacked boxes. Both Elliott and Harris can break through tackles as Harris' fresh legs were on display last week. In a must-win game for Denver, New England's best chance could be to control the line of scrimmage and shorten the game by effectively running the ball. New England is 24th in rush EPA on offense, but a jolt of Harris could come at the right time for the position group.
"Solid guy, he's here every day;" said Belichick of Harris. "Works hard every day. Scout team, offense, kicking game, he's worked hard on his pass protection and pass routes. He can carry the ball, but he's worked on other parts of his game, too. So, it's helped him become more well-rounded player. But he's a solid guy. He works and gives you solid effort every day."
Plan for Javonte Williams
Williams has averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt as Denver's leading rusher and the Broncos ground attack has been effective in spurts but lacked finish (28th in rushing TDs with six). They're 13th in rush EPA. Both he and Samaje Perine have been more effective as receivers out of the backfield and that could spell trouble for the Patriots run defense, that has been stout all season long and thus, could be entirely avoided by the Broncos. Getting Williams and Perine in space and not running them headfirst into Davon Godchaux and friends would be an effective plan. Last week, the Chiefs got the Patriots by similarly attacking them and Sean Payton could look to replicate some of what Andy Reid put together. The Broncos are under center at the 4th-highest rate in the league and a lot of their work with the running backs will come from there.
Pats Defensive Game Changers
It's obvious that the Patriots defense has continued to play hard despite the team's three wins this season. Christian Barmore, Jahlani Tavai and Jabrill Peppers have been among the team's most notable defenders that have brought energy to every game and made some of the team's biggest plays. In Denver, they'll face another challenging offense with an experienced head coach who will have a plan to attack them. Anferee Jennings, Ja'Whaun Bentley and the stout defensive linemen will once again be key factors against Denver, a historically tough place for any Patriots team to play. A defensive score has eluded the team all season long and would be a fitting achievement for them to log before the season ends. It's a good bet one of those players mentioned would be involved in it.
Still Looking for Special
This one seems likely the weekly piece we're always wrapping up with, as the special teams continues to make bad plays that impact the outcome of the game. Last week against the Chiefs it was an admittedly ticky-tacky call on Brenden Schooler on the opening kickoff that negated a big play and some key punt return yardage allowed that played a part in their eleventh defeat. This is two seasons in a row the Pats have been at or near the bottom of the league in Special Teams DVOA. With three games to go is there anything positive for them to salvage from this season outside of Schooler's Week 2 punt block? Denver boasts the third-ranked Special Teams DVOA, as it could be an area where the game is decided.
Belichick was impressed with what the Broncos have been doing on special teams, calling them "very explosive in the kicking game. [Marvin] Mims [Jr.] is having a great year. Both punt and kickoff returns, they really create a lot of field position there."
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