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Scouting the Matchups: Huge test for Patriots offensive line

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

Although he isn't the most talented player on the Denver defense, inside linebacker Brandon Marshall may be having the best season of any Broncos defender. Marshall is the team's leading tackler and one of the reasons the Broncos rank near the top of the league in both rushing yards allowed per game and per play. Statistically, New England's running game hasn't been overly impressive and with the passing game losing weapons to injury in recent weeks it would be a nice time to increase the ground production. It remains to be seen how well the Patriots can absorb the loss of Dion Lewis (torn ACL) long term. LeGarrette Blount has been operating behind an offensive line that has been hit hard by injuries, and the Patriots will likely be looking for more production from Brandon Bolden or James White. Advantage: BRONCOS

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WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN

Denver's running game has been anything but consistent this season. The Broncos entered last week's game against Chicago ranked 29th in yards rushing per game (86.0), tied for 27th in yards rushing per carry (3.8) and 30th in rushing attempts. C.J. Anderson began the year as the team's No. 1 running back, but Ronnie Hillman made his fourth consecutive start against the Bears. Hillman has run for a team-high 528 yards on 124 carries this season, and Anderson has gained 383 yards on 102 rushing attempts. Each back has had his moments - Hillman has surpassed 100 yards rushing in three games, Anderson in one -- but they'll be going up against a New England team that ranked No. 2 in rush defense through Week 10 and has shut down better rushing attacks than Denver's. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

This is clearly the game's marquee matchup and will likely go a long way toward determining the outcome. Denver has spent most of the season as the NFL's top-rated pass defense, both in yards allowed per game and per play. The Broncos also entered last weekend's game against Chicago leading the league in sacks, although outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware hasn't played in Denver's last two games because of a back injury. Ware leads the team in sacks with 6.5. The Patriots have one of the NFL's top pass offenses, and quarterback Tom Brady has done an excellent job of protecting the football this season (four interceptions). This is the second game New England will be without Julian Edelman, and the troubles up front has been magnified in recent weeks. Look for Denver to turn up the heat. Advantage: BRONCOS

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WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS

It appears that Father Time has finally caught up with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who was suffering through the worst of his 17 NFL seasons before he was benched after throwing four interceptions in a 29-13 loss to Kansas City on Nov. 15. Manning has a 59.9 completion percentage and has thrown nine touchdown passes with 17 interceptions this year - and his season may be over. Brock Osweiler, 25, made the first start of his professional career in last week's 17-15 victory over Chicago. He completed 20 of 27 pass attempts for 250 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions) in that game. Denver announced that Osweiler will be the starter against New England and for the foreseeable future, and his skill set fits better with Gary Kubiak's offensive system.  Advantage: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS

The Patriots have been solid in almost every area of special teams this season. It all starts with Stephen Gostkowski, who has proven to be one of the most reliable kickers in the game. Ryan Allen's contributions often go unnoticed, but he is one of the NFL's more underrated punters. And then there's Matthew Slater, who proves his worth covering kicks on a weekly basis. New England has also blocked a field goal and recovered an onside kick this season. The Broncos also have an excellent kicker in Brandon McManus, who was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for October. His performance in the month included game-winning field goals against Minnesota and Cleveland. But the Patriots ability to impact games on special teams is perhaps unrivaled.  Advantage: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS

Denver enjoys a significant edge playing at home, although the Broncos did drop a 29-13 decision to Kansas City in their last game at Sports Authority Field. New England may be catching Denver at the right time. After a 7-0 start, the Broncos lost two in a row before they rediscovered their running game in last Sunday's 17-15 victory over the Bears. A bit of a QB controversy was created, however, since it was Brock Osweiler - not Peyton Manning - who guided the Broncos to that victory. It's uncertain what the future holds for Manning. Osweiler will start this week, and his lack of seasoning may force Denver to lean on its running game as it did against Chicago. That would be playing into one of the Patriots strengths. But the home field edge in the Mile High City is arguably the greatest in football. Advantage: BRONCOS

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