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 of prep.
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 opportunistic defense.
"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."
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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 New England.
"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 play.
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 percent).
"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."
|Tebow proves he's an NFL quarterback.|
--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 game.
--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 spread formations.
--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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