Broncos Update Inside Slant - October 30

A year ago the Broncos entered the midway point cruising along at 6-2, only to stumble down the stretch and miss the playoffs. This year they come in at 5-3, having lost three of their last four games. Players insist they aren't in panic mode, even if they once again will be without at least four regular starters this week against New England.

"A lot of teams go a lot of different directions after the midway point," coach Mike Shanahan said, pointing to last year when Oakland went 4-4 only to get on a roll all the way to the Super Bowl.

But he knows Denver has to play better offensively than it did last week, when they managed just six points with Danny Kanell under center. The Broncos were 4-1 with Jake Plummer in the lineup, averaging 28.2 points a game. Without him they have averaged just 14.3. Of course, the defenses they've played in recent weeks have been tougher than the ones Plummer faced. And it doesn't get any easier for Kanell against a Bill Belichick-coached unit that changes its style on a weekly basis.

"Bill's mentally going to tax anybody who plays and it's not just the quarterback," Shanahan said. "It's the whole group. You're going to see lot of looks."

The good news for Denver may be its schedule. It plays five of its next six games at home. In that span it plays only two teams with a winning record -- New England and Kansas City -- and both games are at Invesco Field. The other four teams are a combined 8-20.

Though the Broncos have five straight at home, that's small consolation to tight end Shannon Sharpe.

"Twelve road teams won games (last week)," Sharpe said. "If we don't take care of business we're going to add to that trend," he said.

SERIES HISTORY: 37th meeting. Broncos hold a 22-14 edge. Denver holds 14-7 advantage in games played in Denver. Broncos won last year in Foxboro, 24-16.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--The frustration and disappointment are evident in Ed McCaffrey's eyes, and his voice.

"I've been sick to my stomach the last two weeks standing on the sidelines," the Denver Broncos veteran wide receiver said Wednesday. "It's been unbelievably frustrating."

And there's no guarantee when the frustration will end. As the Broncos began preparations for Monday night's prime-time showdown with the New England Patriots, a quadriceps injury once again has relegated McCaffrey to an observer role. He won't practice all week, and won't test the leg until immediately before the game.

Even if he gets the thumbs-up from trainers and coach Mike Shanahan to return, he will only be a substitute in Denver's three wide receiver sets.

"It's not a matter of it just hurting. I'd play through the pain. But it's an injury that keeps me from being able to run the routes I need to suit up on Sunday," he said.

While much has been made about the absence of quarterback Jake Plummer from the starting lineup, players say McCaffrey's absence has been noticeable as well, and not merely in the passing game. He is perhaps Denver's best downfield blocker, the guy who helps clear the way for those big runs by Clinton Portis.

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- catches by Ed McCaffrey the last time Denver played New England. Through eight games this year he has just eight catches for 73 yards.

7.3 -- The average number of points the Patriots have allowed in their last three games.

Minus-5 -- the Broncos turnover margin this year, which includes 10 interceptions -- seven in the last three weeks by backup quarterbacks Steve Beuerlein and Danny Kanell.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We'll have to be on our toes because they will mix it up. They will bring different blitzes, they will show different coverages. That's what makes it so tough." -- Broncos quarterback Danny Kanell on facing New England's defense.

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