D.Thomas poses a challenge for New England
DIVISION PLAYOFF PREVIEW: New England Patriots vs Denver Broncos. News, notes, stats, scouting reports, links and more...
Denver Broncos (9-8) at New England Patriots (13-3)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
VENUE: Gillette Stadium
SURFACE: Field Turf
LOCATION: Foxboro, Mass (map)
WEATHER: current forecast (10', 14mph
wind, 10% chance of snow)
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
PREDICTION: Patriots 36-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: Denver moves OLB Von Miller
around the field to get him in mismatches. But even if he gets
pressure, Miller needs help behind him. The Broncos tackled poorly and
blew assignments repeatedly in the first meeting. While containing WR
Wes Welker, they neglected Hernandez and fellow TE Rob Gronkowski.
Denver plans to use more of its "heavy dime" package with S Rafael Bush
playing cornerback; it was effective last week. QB Tom Brady will hold
Bush's feet to the flame to find out if he can hold up, while also
again targeting undrafted rookie CB Chris Harris. Harris helped keep
Welker quiet the first time around.
The Patriots were gashed on the ground with a 4-3 front at Denver, then
finished the game using more 3-4 alignments. The wide sets from the
outside linebackers kept QB Tim Tebow contained, not allowing him to
turn the corner. New England wants to funnel the action inside, where
its top playmakers, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, await. To draw the
Patriots out of that package, Tebow has to be effective on early downs
getting the ball to his receivers. Denver won't veer far from its bread
and butter of straight-ahead running, even with expectations that Bill
Belichick will have an inventive gameplan waiting after an extra week
FAST FACTS: The Patriots are the NFL's best home
team, 74-15 including the postseason, since Gillette Stadium opened in
2002. ... Denver is one of just five teams in NFL history to start a
season 2-5 or worse and reach the postseason. ... The Patriots allowed
74 points in the first half of their final four regular-season games.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The New England Patriots are preparing for their
biggest game of the season Saturday night at home against Denver in the
divisional playoffs, so there's a heightened sense of urgency around
team headquarters in Foxboro these days.
At the same time, there's more optimism than
there's been in years past, perhaps because the team is arguably as
healthy as it's been all season.
Offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer, who've combined to miss 11 games this year due to injury, are
both back on the practice field this week and are expected to play
Saturday night. Protecting quarterback Tom Brady is always a top
priority on game day, and it looks as though the Patriots will have
their best line of defense on the field this weekend against Denver's
"I think we've seen progress out of everybody,"
head coach Bill Belichick said. "All the guys are out there working and
I think each one of them is making progress, and we'll see how things
go here after stringing these days together.
"We'll probably have some game-time decisions,
but, definitely, a lot of these guys are close and getting better."
Certain obstacles have derailed the Patriots in
their recent playoff failures, whether it was shoddy chemistry or a key
injury, such as the one suffered by Wes Welker in the 2009 season
finale, knocking him out of the playoffs.
This year is a different story. The Patriots still
have their share of problems, such as their suspect secondary and
patchwork defense, but this team is as close to 100 percent as anyone
can reasonably expect at this time of year.
That means no more excuses, win or lose. The
Patriots are once again the top seed in the AFC with Super Bowl
aspirations, and anything short of that would be an absolute failure
regardless of the quality of the competition.
For now, no one is thinking negatively within the
confines of Gillette Stadium. The vibes are all positive as the
Patriots prepare for another run at the Super Bowl.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to play competitively
Saturday night," Belichick said. "I think the players are excited to
play. It's been a couple weeks, but a week off last week in terms of
getting a couple extra days rest, things like that, were good. I think
everybody is excited to play, so hopefully we'll be ready to go."
The Broncos seemingly borrowed a page from a Red
Hot Chili Peppers song in the second quarter of their December meeting
vs. the Patriots:
Give it away, give it away, give it away now.
Three turnovers in four possessions in the final 8
1/2 minutes led to three New England scores and turned what had been a
16-7 advantage into a 11-point halftime deficit.
It may have been the single-biggest factor
affecting that game, but, at the same time it's given Denver confidence
that if it can avert those kinds of mistakes the team can match up with
"We did some things well," quarterback Tim Tebow
said. "And then we definitely made some mistakes that made it a little
bit easier as far as the three turnovers."
The giveaways weren't an isolated incident. Denver
was guilty of turnovers - including five lost fumbles - during its
season-ending five-game losing streak. When the Broncos won six
straight prior to the Patriots loss on Dec. 18, Tebow had thrown just
one interception and the team added four lost fumbles to that total -
which amounts to less than one turnover per game.
Considering that the Patriots' .838 winning
percentage is the highest by any team at its home stadium since the
1970 merger - not to mention 11-3 in the postseason, the job of beating
them under those conditions hits near-impossible status with sloppy
New England over the last decade is 103-4 in games
in which it's won the turnover battle.
But the Broncos even with all their miscues in the
first meeting managed 393 net yards - including 252 via the rush. So
when they hung onto the ball they were able to sustain drives. It would
have been better if not for a 4-for-10 performance on third down and
0-for-2 on fourth down.
"I don't think you need to be cautious. You have
to be aggressive with what you're doing, but you have to play smart,"
wide receiver Eddie Royal said. "Whenever you play New England, you've
got to play smart, because they're a well-coached team and whenever you
make mistakes, you've got to capitalize."
The Patriots led the AFC with 34 takeaways,
including 23 interceptions, and the Broncos were one of eight teams to
give the ball away 30-plus times.
One other key for Denver will be converting the
chances it has in close, since New England inevitably will - New
England is No. 2 in the NFL in touchdown percentage inside the 20 (65.3
"Scoring in the red zone is big. We have a big
drive going, we need to score seven," Tebow said, alluding to Denver's
23rd-place ranking in that category at just 47.2 percent. "One time
last time we played them we weren't able to do that, and if we could
have put that one in, we would have went up maybe 21-7 and two
touchdowns is a lot more than 10 (points). That'll be big."
--DL Kyle Love was removed from the injury report
after participating fully in Thursday's practice. Love was absent
Wednesday, but not due to injury, so he will be ready for Saturday's
--S Patrick Chung has also been removed from the
injury report. Chung has been nursing a foot injury, but participated
in Thursday's practice and will be ready for Saturday.
--WR Julian Edelman practiced Thursday and has
been removed from the injury report. Edelman had been suffering from a
back injury, but will be in action Saturday night.
--LT Matt Light is no longer on the injury report
after practicing Thursday and will make his return to the lineup
Saturday. Light had been nursing an ankle injury.
--CB Devin McCourty has been removed from the
injury report despite a lingering shoulder injury and will be in the
lineup Saturday night. McCourty also practiced Thursday.
--S Brian Dawkins (neck) missed a third straight
day of practice. He's been declared out for the fourth time in five
games. But Dawkins does appear closer to returning, should Denver
advance. He's been stepping up his pre-practice routine in the days
leading up the Patriots.
-- WR Eric Decker (knee) hasn't practiced all week
and is a long shot to play Saturday night. Decker will likely be
replaced in the starting lineup by Eddie Royal, who caught his second
TD pass last week. Matt Willis will slide in as the No. 3 receiver in
--LS Lonie Paxton missed a second straight day for
personal reasons but coach John Fox wouldn't confirm the player's
availability Saturday night. Paxton's omission from practice is
noteworthy but given both his experience (12 seasons) and considerable
experience playing at New England (he played the first nine years with
the Patriots), there shouldn't be any issues attributed to his absence,
should he return in time.
--LB Wesley Woodyard figures to see plenty of
snaps in Denver's nickel and dime packages, as he'll be one of the
primary coverage defenders on Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Woodyard's playing time had decreased recently due to
Denver's overall issues defending the run out of the nickel package.
--OT Tony Hills was active and played in his first
game last week. With Denver light at the fullback position, Hills was
used in heavy two- and three-tight end formations and could find
himself in a similar niche role this week.
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