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Scouting the Matchup: Defense will lead the way

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Broncos have struggled offensively but still remain one of the league's top defensive teams, ranking among the top five in almost every defensive category. That includes stopping the run, where they've been as good as anybody through eight weeks, a remarkable turnaround after finishing 28th a year ago. The difference is the signing of 11-year veteran Domata Peko, who has changed the face of Denver's defensive line. The Patriots have run the ball more efficiently in recent weeks with Dion Lewis seeing more time lately and Rex Burkhead returning to the lineup. The Broncos suffered an uncharacteristic letdown last weekend in Philadelphia, allowing 197 yards and three rushing touchdowns, but New England will still have its hands full against this stout Denver defense unless it can run more efficiently on early downs. Advantage: Broncos

WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN

The numbers are still ghastly, but the Patriots have made some progress with their run defense thanks in large part to the recent strong play of linebacker Elandon Roberts, who's helped ease the sting from losing Dont'a Hightower to a season-ending injury. The Patriots are still giving up too many big plays, as evidenced by the 87-yard touchdown run by Melvin Gordon in Week 8. While the Broncos beefed up their offensive line during the offseason and are more committed to running the ball, neither Anderson nor backups Jamaal Charles or Devontae Booker has been exceptional, nor can they find the end zone with any regularity. The Broncos rank among the top 10 in rushing but were awful again last weekend in Philadelphia, combining for a mere 35 yards, and aren't much of a threat this weekend either. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Save for last weekend's four-touchdown disaster against the Eagles, Denver's pass defense is its great asset. Known as the "No Fly Zone," the Broncos secondary boasts two strong outside cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, and an equally efficient nickel corner in Bradley Roby. Linebacker Von Miller continues to cause chaos as the league's top pass rusher and is on pace for double-digit sacks for the sixth time in his career. This is a tall order for an offensive line that has struggled with pass protection. The Patriots have neutralized some of those issues by getting rid of the ball quickly and utilizing their running backs in the passing game, but the Broncos can take away the underneath routes, too, so they'll need someone other than Rob Gronkowski to step up, especially with Chris Hogan expected to sit due to a shoulder injury. Look for the backs to be a big part of the passing attack once again. Advantage: Broncos

WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS

The Broncos have failed to regain their offensive magic since Peyton Manning retired, and Trevor Siemian was so bad through the team's first seven games they went back to Brock Osweiler last weekend in Philadelphia. Even with All-World receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Denver still ranks among the bottom half in passing yards per game. Osweiler threw two interceptions against the Eagles, so with costly errors still plaguing Denver's passing game, the Broncos are no real threat to pick apart New England's secondary, which surprisingly has found its rhythm with Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe out of the lineup. After allowing 300 or more passing yards in their first six games, the Patriots shut down Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers in back-to-back weeks. They're hot right now, and that should continue Sunday. Advantage: Patriots

SPECIAL TEAMS

Perhaps the only thing worse than Denver's offense this year is its special teams, which has struggled in coverage on both kickoff and punt returns and has suffered from poor production from kicker Brandon McManus and punter Riley Dixon, who entered Week 9 ranked among the worst in the league in yards per punt. McManus went 3-for-3 against Philadelphia to redeem himself but still missed five of his first 15 attempts, while the coverage units ranked near the bottom of the league. Stephen Gostkowski missed a pair of field goals against the Chargers but has been otherwise solid. Ryan Allen has technically been worse than Dixon but excels by pinning more of his punts inside the 20. The Patriots are leaps and bounds ahead of Denver on special teams and could take advantage in the return game Sunday to sway field position. Advantage: Patriots

OTHER FACTORS

The Broncos have been wildly inconsistent this year, winning three of their first four games before losing four in a row. Their running game is average, and they're currently between quarterbacks as they may or may not have fully settled on whether Siemian or Osweiler should start the rest of the year. The Patriots have never had much success in Denver, including two recent playoff losses, but none of that matters anymore because the Broncos are dreadful, unlike those great Manning-led teams that knocked New England out of the playoffs. The intangible quality of being dominant at home against the Patriots was the one thing Denver had left to hold onto entering this weekend's matchup, but it's hard to imagine the Patriots faltering this time, not with what the Broncos have gone through in recent weeks. Advantage: Patriots

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