The Broncos have beaten the Patriots in four of their last five meetings. They're also the only team to ever beat Tom Brady in the playoffs. This is a whole new season with new players, and the Patriots are right in trying not to get too caught up in the past, but that 13-27 playoff loss last season is still lingering in the minds of Patriots players and fans alike. Here are five things the Patriots need to do to help prevent a repeat of last January's game.
Protect the football.
Turnovers basically cost the Patriots the game in their last meeting with the Broncos, especially the interception by Champ Bailey that resulted in a 100-yard return. "It was tough," Brady said this summer. "That's going to sit with me for a long time. I continue to be reminded of it. It's on NFL Network and every time I watch it's Champ running down the sideline. It was a tough way to end the year." Brady will likely be very careful about where he throws the ball this week. The Broncos know that big opportunities are rare, and always capitalize on them. Also, Kevin Faulk had a fumble recovered by the Broncos and so did Ellis Hobbs. Hobbs' fumble came on a kickoff return. Hobbs hasn't returned a kickoff yet this year, but was with returners Laurence Maroney, Faulk, and Willie Andrews during the portion of today's practice available to the media. He may be looking to prove his returning abilities against the Broncos. The Broncos defense will be trying to strip the ball and cause turnovers whenever possible, trying to repeat their last performance against the Pats. The Patriots will need to be cognizant of this and Brady needs to remember that Bailey and John Lynch will be looking to pick him off. If the Pats can protect the football, they'll have a much better chance of beating the Broncos this time around.
Keep running well.
On the first day of training camp, Corey Dillon wore a big grin when he said that his motto this season is "N.F.A." Looking at his numbers so far this season, it seems he wasn't kidding. He's on the rebound from a lackluster 2005 season in which he averaged only 3.5 yards-per carry. So far this year he's averaging 4.3 yards-per carry, which is also his career average. He's getting plenty of time to catch his breath while the rookie runs. Laurence Maroney, who is averaging 4.6 yards-per carry, acts as the second barrel on the Patriots double-barreled shotgun of a running game. Between them, they've gained 304 yards in the Pat's first two games, each of them recording four runs of more than 10 yards. Running the ball should help cut down the Broncos tendency to blitz – they can't make the tackles if they're back in the pocket looking for Brady – and it will help Brady gain time on play-action passes. If they can keep things moving the way they have been, Brady won't have to throw the ball 40 times, which will help prevent interceptions like the one Bailey had to ice the game in their last meeting.
Start causing turnovers on defense.
There have been some great stops by the defense thus far and they've had the intensity they need at crucial times, but the Pats haven't been able to capitalize on turnovers yet. The interception by Tedy Bruschi at the end of last week's Jets game marked the final twist of the knife for the frantic Jets offense. However, that was the only turnover the Patriots defense has had this season. Turnovers could help make up for the Pats lacking kick and punt return games by giving the offense good field position, though punter Josh Miller has been a big contributor to field position already. Obviously, the Pats still have no points off takeaways, but that kind of thing could put a stop to the Broncos two-game rein of terror against the Pats. It would be fitting, as well, since turnovers played such a big role when the Broncos squashed the Pats Super Bowl dreams. Rodney Harrison has recorded five interceptions in his career against the Broncos, and is due for another now that he's feeling healthy, especially after Bruschi caught the one he tipped in the Jets game. If and when they come, big turnovers will provide the Pats with serious momentum, especially in front of the home crowd at Gillette Stadium.
Stuff the run.
It's true that Rod Smith has been lethal against the Patriots, posting four 100-yard receiving games against them, including 123 yards and a touchdown on six catches in their last regular season meeting (Oct., 2005). However, shutting down the Broncos running game will help the Pats defend the pass as well. Taking away their running game will unbalance their offense. Stuffing the run and filling the holes will also help contain Jake Plummer, who throws best in boot plays and on the run. The Patriots almost want to treat Plummer like Michael Vick, because when he has to throw from the pocket his passes go off target. The Rocky Mountain News reported that Tatum Bell will be the starting running back in this game. He gained 114 rushing yards on 13 carries, including a 68-yard run the last time the teams met in the regular season. RookieMike Bell will also get his share of the carries. The Patriots front seven has gone from being a concern early in the year to being one of its strongest units. If that crew of guys can stuff the run and contain Plummer, he'll be more likely to present them with opportunities.
Avoid mental errors.
The Patriots escaped the first half of the Jets game without a single penalty. They'll be amped for this game and need to keep their heads if they want to pull out a win on Sunday. The defense will want to fly around, but players need to be careful not to over pursue or they could fall victim to Denver's zone blocking scheme. Asante Samuel had a questionable, but costly pass interference penalty in the playoff loss after Faulk's fumble, helping the Broncos get out to a 7-3 lead. Giving the Broncos help by making mental errors twice in a drive is exactly what the Pats don't want to do in this game. Don't look for Brady to make a lot of mental errors on Sunday – not after all the thought he's put into their last game against the Broncos. "I re-watched the press conference before the [postseason] Denver game," Brady said. "The last thing I said, to the last question – it was about Champ Bailey – was, 'Every time I throw over there I'm really going to make sure I'm careful when I throw the ball in his direction.' Then I walked off. Can you believe that? Of all the things to say."
Practice squad wideout Bam Childress and Denver corner back Champ Bailey are cousins. Bam was asked today about his cousin, saying that the two haven't spoken this week in anticipation of the game. … Bill Belichick was an assistant special teams coordinator for the Broncos in 1978. … Patriots tight endDaniel Graham was raised in Denver. His father, Tom, played three seasons for the Broncos. … Broncos center Tom Nalen was born in Foxborough, Mass., attended Foxboro High and attended Boston College. … Tom Brady and Denver linebacker Ian Gold were four-year teammates at the University of Michigan. … Richard Seymour and Benjamin Watson were teammates of Broncos tackle George Foster at the University of Georgia, where Champ Bailey also played with Seymour. … Asante Samuel and Broncos wide receiver Todd Devoe both attended Boyd Anderson High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. … Broncos running back Cedric Cobbs was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL draft. … Patriots assistant secondary coach Joel Collier's father, Joe Collier, was an assistant coach for the Broncos for 20 seasons. Joel Collier served as a ballboy for the Broncos while growing up and went on to attend Northern Colorado University, where he was a three-year starter at inside linebacker. … Patriots tight ends coach Pete Mangurian was an assistant coach for the Broncos for five seasons from 1988-92. … Corey Dillon ran for 278 yards on 22 carries against the Broncos on Oct. 22, 2000, while playing for the Bengals. The 278 yards set an NFL record at the time and currently rank as the second-highest single-game rushing total in the NFL's 87-year history.