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Patriots Replay Fri Oct 18 | 12:00 AM - 11:59 PM

Scouting the Matchups: Broncos have no answer for Rob Gronkowski

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Patriots have absorbed a handful of injuries in the running game and are relying on players who either haven't shouldered the load in quite a few years or have little to no experience in that capacity, hence the reason they barely ran against Kansas City. Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden were non-factors last weekend, so it seems unlikely the Patriots will try to run it 20 or more times against a Denver run defense that finished third in the league. Veteran nose tackle Sylvester Williams is an underrated cog in Denver's defense, and middle linebacker Danny Trevathan had a solid year with 109 tackles. The Broncos seal the edges effectively, and they're tough to run on up the middle. It's even more difficult given New England's lack of depth. advantage: BRONCOS

WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN

Denver's running game never really took off the way head coach Gary Kubiak expected it to during the regular season. C.J. Anderson struggled to duplicate his success from 2014. Ronnie Hillman eventually took over lead-back responsibilities, and now both are running well heading into Sunday's rematch. Anderson had his best game the first time these two teams played in November, and the Patriots are dealing with injuries to key linebackers Jerod Mayo (on IR), Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) and Jamie Collins (back). If Collins and/or Hightower are compromised physically it could spell trouble for the Patriots. The run defense struggled against the Chiefs, so expect the Broncos to test this front seven early and often. If Denver can’t run, the Patriots will be in business. advantage: BRONCOS

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Even with a healthy Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski looking like they were in midseason form last weekend, the Patriots face a stiff test against the league's No. 1-ranked pass defense. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are among the best cornerbacks in the league, and there's also the threat of Denver's pass rush, which led the league in sacks. The good news for the Patriots is the Broncos gave up a few big plays last weekend against the Steelers, even without Antonio Brown on the field, while New England's pass protection looked solid in the win over Kansas City. The Patriots have no interest in establishing the run. If they win this game, it'll be because of Brady and the passing game, which is finally trending in the right direction. Harris’ shoulder injury is a major concern for Denver and could lead to some broken tackles by Patriots receivers. advantage: PATRIOTS

WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS

Peyton Manning is back, but he's not the same player who beat New England two years ago in the AFC Championship in Denver. Age and injuries have taken their toll on the 39-year-old quarterback, and New England's front seven is as good at rushing the passer as any team in the NFL. The focus will be on the one-on-one matchups. Malcolm Butler struggled against Emmanuel Sanders in Week 12, but Logan Ryan rendered Demaryius Thomas obsolete (one catch on 13 targets). The weak link is the slot, where the Patriots have had trouble defending in recent weeks. New England will probably play a mix of zone and man defense, and it will ultimately come down to Manning being able put more zip on his throws than he did a week ago. If Manning avoids mistakes the Patriots secondary could struggle but it’s been a while since the veteran has been able to do that in consecutive weeks. advantage: PATRIOTS

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Broncos are coming off a solid performance on special teams against Pittsburgh in which they won the field-position battle handily, and kicker Brandon McManus connected on all five of his field-goal attempts. The Patriots unraveled on special teams over the final six weeks of the season and were sloppy again Saturday against the Chiefs, highlighted by Danny Amendola's ill-advised unnecessary roughness penalty, which forced the Patriots to start a drive from their own 2. Edelman has the ability to make a game-changing play on punt returns, and Stephen Gostkowski can match McManus kick for kick, but the Patriots haven't given any indication they're on the verge of snapping out of their recent funk on special teams. advantage: BRONCOS

OTHER FACTORS

After losing four of their final six games, the Patriots relinquished the No. 1 seed in the AFC to Denver. The Mile High City has been a house of horrors for the Patriots, and now they have to return there one more time this season with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Including the postseason, the Patriots have lost five of their last six in Denver. Now they face Manning, who has won his last two playoff games against New England (2006 and 2013). The Patriots haven't been a great playoff team on the road under Bill Belichick because they're not in this position too often. New England looked sharp Saturday while the Broncos won by the skin of their teeth against Pittsburgh, but all things considered, venue is always king in the NFL. advantage: BRONCOS

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