After dismantling the Jaguars 28-3 in the first round of the playoffs, the Patriots now get ready to travel to Denver to take on the 13-3 Broncos. Denver beat the Patriots 28-20 earlier this year and Bill Belichick knows what kind of challenge his team has ahead of them this weekend.
"The Denver Broncos will be our toughest challenge this season," Belichick said after finding out the Broncos would be the Patriots next opponent. "To have any chance, it will take our best game and certainly a lot better performance than the last time we played them."
Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan has 121 wins to go along with two Super Bowl titles in his 11 seasons with Denver. Shanahan has a reputation as being an offensive mastermind and you won't get any arguments from Belichick.
"I have had the privilege of coaching against a lot of great people and I would have to put Mike up there at the top of the list," Belichick said. "I don't think there is anybody any better at game-planning and creating problems for the defense. He always knows how to exploit your weaknesses and hit you where it hurts."
Shanahan trails only Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh (14 seasons) and Jeff Fisher in Tennessee (12 seasons) for the longest tenure by an active coach with the same team. There were some question marks surrounding the Broncos after an opening week loss to the Miami Dolphins but Denver went 13-2 the rest of the way, earning the second seed in the AFC playoffs.
Quarterback Jake Plummer leads the Broncos offense. Plummer has always been a talented quarterback but in the past he has been prone to making mistakes. That hasn't been a problem this year for the Broncos quarterback. Plummer ended the year tossing 18 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He had a big game against the Patriots the first time the two teams played, throwing for 262 yards and two scores
"Jake is good at managing the game," Belichick said. "He can hurt you throwing, especially out of the pocket, as well as running. He has a lot of weapons to chose from."
One of those weapons is 11-year veteran Rod Smith. Superman has kryptonite and the Patriots have Smith. He kills the Patriots every time he plays them, something not lost on Belichick.
"I'm sure when he goes into the Hall of Fame, he will thank us," Belichick joked. "He kills us every single time we play them."
Smith has 30 receptions for 572 yards in his last three games with the Patriots and he led the Broncos this season with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns. The veteran was named to his third Pro Bowl this year and he's a player that's well respected by the Patriot players.
According to linebacker and special teams ace Don Davis, "Rod Smith is a great receiver. To be an undrafted guy and to produce some of the best numbers in the league, he's always tough for us to contend with. We have been a little banged up in the secondary this year but we are just going to have to step up and get it done"
Another area of concern for the Patriots defense is the Broncos rushing attack. As usual, the Denver has a bevy of running backs to choose from. Mike Anderson led the team in rushing this season with 1,014 yards and second-year back Tatum Bell was right behind him with 921 yards. Bell hurt the Patriots in their first meeting when he scampered 68 yards just before the half to set up a Broncos touchdown. Former Giant Ron Dayne has also played well when given the opportunity.
When asked about the Broncos running backs, Davis said, "You are like wow, how in the world can these guys have so many running backs? This guy comes in and he rushes for 1,000 yards. The next guy comes in and he rushes for 1,000 yards. Man, they just keep coming."
Belichick broke it down very simply saying, "They have good backs. They have good players. They have a good scheme. You have to worry about the receivers. You have to worry about the tight ends. All of them block. They're all part of the running game too. The runners are good. They're all good. It's a good offensive football team. The biggest thing Mike has to do is he has so many options, try to figure out which ones he wants to take advantage of the most"
It's been said to win in the NFL teams have to run the ball and stop the run. If that's the case, the Broncos are in good shape entering the playoffs because they do both very well. Denver ranked second in the NFL this season in both rushing offense and defense. The Patriots are a much better team now than the one that traveled to the Rocky Mountains in October. This should be a very physical football game and whichever team wins the battle in the trenches will most likely advance to the AFC Championship Game.