The New England Patriots were at their worst the last time they visited Denver. They are at their best now. That's what three months will do for a football team.
Formerly one of the most banged up, embattled teams in the league, the Patriots (11-6) enter Saturday night's game against the Broncos (13-3) healthier than they have been all season.
This week's injury report has 12 Patriots listed -- all as probable. Starters Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Atrell Hawkins, Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon and Troy Brown are all expected to be available for duty this week. None of them played in the first meeting in Week 6.
That is not to say that the Patriots will have an easy time dispatching the Broncos, who are 8-0 at home. But the game will surely unfold in a different fashion this time around.
The Broncos ran for 178 yards on the way to a 28-20 victory in the first game. But the Patriots have since jumped to first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed in the second half of the season (68.8 yards per game). Jake Plummer completed pass plays of 72 and 55 yards. But that was against a secondary that featured Duane Starks (now on IR) and rookie James Sanders as starters.
Most importantly, the first game was in mid-October. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have lost plenty of games together in the autumn months. But they are a perfect 10-0 in playoff games. The Broncos are simply facing the wrong team at the wrong time.
New England's defense is confident in its newfound ability to shut down the running game. And they happen to be facing a perfect test for just how far they have come at stopping the rush. Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell were the best running back tandem in the league this season. Anderson ran for 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns while Bell finished a close second with 921 yards and eight scores.
The explosive Bell is likely to be the biggest threat against the Patriots. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry compared to Andersons 4.2. Bell's 68-yard run against New England was the only rushing play over 20 yards that the Patriots surrendered all season.
"He has 4.4 speed so (when) he gets into the secondary (hes different from) a lot of guys that would have had a 12 or 15-yard run," said Bill Belichick. "He took it (68 yards). That is what that kind of speed does. He's a big play back."
Coincidentally, Mike Vrabel's first game as a middle linebacker was against Denver. The linebackers were well out of position on Bell's jaunt through the gut of the Patriots defense. This time around, with Vrabel better adjusted to life in the middle and Bruschi alongside, the Patriots are much better suited to stuffing running lanes. Most of Denver's running plays cut back to the inside, so Vrabel, Bruschi and Monty Beisel will have plenty of opportunities for tackles.
On the defensive line, Seymour's presence over the last two months has taken some pressure off nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was routinely getting blown off the ball without the three-time Pro Bowler next to him. Seymour and Bruschi will be key against a Denver offense that runs the ball 53 percent of the time (second in the NFL). Denver is sure to rack up some yardage on the ground because the Patriots are not going to completely sell out their front seven to the run and compromise their pass defense.
"Mike (Shanahan) does a great job of building the play action passes," said Belichick. "As much as you want to sit there and say, 'Stop the run. Stop the run. Stop the run,' there's a lot of big plays there in the passing game that if you don't cover those, you'll have even more of a problem than you do in the running game."
The question is whether quarterback Jake Plummer can take advantage of the Patriots downfield. Plummer has not won a playoff game since 1998, but Shanahan seems to have found the perfect formula for success for the formerly mistake-prone quarterback. After throwing 20 interceptions last season, he threw just seven this season and only two at Mile High Stadium, where he has a 96.3 passer rating.
The Broncos often simplify Plummer's decision making by rolling him out of the pocket so he can throw on the run. When he stays in the pocket too long, bad throws can be coaxed with pressure.
"Plummer is one of those guys who I think sometimes he is at his best when he is running," said Willie McGinest. "When he is on the move he can throw the ball really well running to his left or his right. He is one of those guys who is not good running to just one side. He can do it both ways."
McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin will need to consistently seal off the edge of the pocket to prevent Plummer from getting clear looks at his favorite targets Rod Smith (85 receptions) and Ashley Lelie (18.3 yards per catch). New England's secondary will likely play a zone scheme against the Denver receivers because cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Hobbs are significantly smaller than Smith and Lelie.
If the Patriots can duplicate the pressure they got on Byron Leftwich last week, it will be a long day for Plummer and the Bronco's passing game. But the Patriots will only be able to blitz if they have a lead and they can stop the running attack early.
The defense will be able to be more aggressive if Brady can continue his success putting up points in the playoffs. He added to his postseason stats with three touchdown passes last week against the Jaguars, but Brady is 1-3 in Denver in his career.
However, the most recent loss had little to do with Brady. The primary running backs that day were Patrick Pass and Amos Zereoue. Dillon and Faulk have been good complements to each other when they are both healthy enough to play. Against Jacksonville, Dillon had just 40 yards on 17 carries and looked sluggish trying to hit holes. But Faulk countered that with 51 yards on the ground and another 45 on four receptions. Shutting down one or the other won't be a problem, but Denver will find it more challenging to keep both quiet all game.
As has been the case all season, the offense will revolve around Brady, but if the Pats are forced to abandon the running attack, they will leave themselves open to blitzes. The good news is the Broncos were last in the league with just 29 sacks, so Brady should have enough time to find receivers downfield. Rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur, who were solid in pass protection last week, may be prone to false starts in what is sure to be ear-piercing crowd noise in Denver.
If he has even a little time, Brady should be able to find his rhythm against the 29th-ranked pass defense in the NFL (227.7 yards per game). Deion Branch had seven catches for 87 yards in the first game, though Champ Bailey was not 100 percent for that game. Bailey's eight interceptions will likely deter Brady from looking his way too often. Rookie cornerback Dominique Foxworth could have trouble shadowing crafty route-runners David Givens and Brown.
In the end, it will come down to Brady making the right reads and avoiding mistakes. Back in the Week 6 loss, the defense was so poor that Brady would have needed a superhuman effort to carry the team to a win. This time, all he has to do is be consistent and make a few big plays. The defense will take care of the rest.
What to look for: How many third downs does the Broncos offense run? Denver is 22nd in the NFL on third down with a 36.2 percent conversion rate. In the first meeting, the Broncos were just 3-for-11 on third down as the offense excelled mainly on the strength of big plays. If the Patriots can force the Broncos into 15 or more third downs and keep the conversion rate low, it will be easier to control the clock and the pace of the game.
Notes: Under Belichick, the Patriots are 19-6 when facing an opponent for the second time in a season. Since 2001, they are 6-0 when facing a team they suffered a loss to the first time around. … The Broncos' +20 turnover differential was second in the NFL in the regular season. … Patriots' receivers led the NFL with 1,919 yards after the catch. … The Broncos outscored opponents 125-40 in the first half at home. … Fullback Kyle Johnson is second on the Broncos with five touchdown receptions. … The Pats are 9-0 when Dillon has more than 15 carries. … New England is 6-4 all-time in the divisional playoffs. … The Broncos were whistled for 11 penalties in the teams first meeting. … Denver allowed just 16.1 points per game (third in the NFL). … The Patriots are 8-15 all-time in Denver.
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