KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:00 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein
SERIES: 40th meeting. Broncos lead 24-15, including a 22-17 Denver win in a first-round AFC playoff game following the 1986 season. The teams have split the last six meetings dating back to 1999. The Patriots are 8-16 all-time in Denver. They lost 10 straight there from 1969 to 1998 but are 2-2 since.
2005 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 7th (24th rush, 2nd pass); defense 26th (8th rush, 31st pass). Broncos: offense 5th (2nd rush, 18th pass); defense 15th (2nd rush, 29th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots attempted to establish their running game against the Broncos' speedy linebackers during the regular season meeting and found themselves in a 28-3 hole.
Expect them to feature more of the spread formations that allowed them to stage a comeback that fell just short. The Broncos are thin at cornerback, with CB Domonique Foxworth starting and fellow rookie Darrent Williams the nickel back -- if he can overcome a groin injury.
Denver built its big lead in the first meeting courtesy of big plays in the running and passing games. The Patriots have since shored up their run defense, which has in turn greatly protected their injury-depleted secondary. The Broncos desperately want to run the ball significantly and allow QB Jake Plummer to manage the game. New England would love nothing more than to stuff the run and force Plummer to beat them.
Patriots: Have an NFL-record 10-game postseason winning streak. ... Are 18-3 (.857) since 2001 when facing a team for a second time in a single season.
Broncos: Lead the series 24-15 and won the only previous postseason meeting, 22-17, at home in the 1986 AFC Divisional Playoffs. ... First ever playoff game at INVESCO Field. ... Have won past eight games played on Saturdays.
--With LB Tedy Bruschi (calf) held out of last week's playoff victory over Jacksonville, LBs Chad Brown and Monty Beisel saw significant action. Beisel started in Bruschi's place for the second week in a row and finished with four tackles. Brown played a lot in the second half when the Patriots primarily used their sub packages. He made two tackles and defensed a pass. Bruschi was not listed on this week's injury report.
--FB Patrick Pass enjoyed a career day the last time the Patriots played in Denver, totaling 153 yards from scrimmage. His previous best was 57 yards. Pass rushed 10 times for 64 yards and caught six passes for 89 yards. He had receptions of 39 and 32 yards.
--SS Artrell Hawkins and reserve S Michael Stone each appeared in their first career playoff game last week. Hawkins, who split his first seven NFL seasons between Cincinnati (1998-2003) and Carolina (2004), made his fifth start of the year since joining the Patriots in November. Stone, who signed on in late September, played for Arizona from 2001-04.
--The Jaguars sacked QB Tom Brady four times, all in the first half, in last week's playoff opener. Brady had been sacked only 12 times in his nine previous career playoff games.
--RB Kevin Faulk had the longest postseason catch (21 yards) and second-longest postseason run (19) of his career against the Jaguars.
--TE Dan Graham's father, Tom, was a Broncos linebacker from 1972-74. --Including his days with the Seahawks (1995-2001), TE Christian Fauria is 2-7 lifetime in Denver.
--CB Darrent Williams should play on Saturday. He has a groin injury but has practiced all week. The Broncos don't know how he'll react in a game situation, however. Denver wasn't testing him too hard during practice early in the week because the Broncos didn't want to set him back.
--G Ben Hamilton has had a very good season. He'll be important on Saturday against New England, getting to the Patriots' talented inside linebackers on Denver's zone running plays.
--LB Al Wilson's biggest asset this year is his mental approach. He's not getting by on physical talent alone. He is seeing the game well and anticipating better than he ever has in his career.
--SS Nick Ferguson will be important in run support against New England. If the Patriots can get their running game going against Denver, it will make Tom Brady even more dangerous.
--WR Ashley Lelie has played a pretty solid all around game in recent weeks. Lelie is a good deep threat but has caught some short passes lately. He would help Denver's offense be more diverse if he can become a complete receiver.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
You don't catch 21 passes in the last two Super Bowls without having a sure pair of hands. So when Deion Branch drops a ball, it's big news.
Branch did just that in last week's playoff win against Jacksonville, letting a deep throw slide right through his grasp inside the Jaguars' 10-yard line on the second-to-last play of the first half. The gaffe cost the Patriots a 54-yard touchdown, forcing them to settle for a narrow 7-3 halftime lead in a game they went on to win, 28-3.
"It was a great play," Branch said of the design, not the execution. "We had been (lobbying) for it on the sidelines, and they gave it to me. The line did a great job blocking. Tom (Brady) put it out there. At one point, when I was going after it, I was thinking about diving, and before I knew it, I got up on the ball so fast. I think it was just bad judgment on my behalf. It wasn't anything, just a plain drop."
On Saturday night, Branch and the Patriots will be in Denver to face the Broncos in an AFC Divisional Playoff game. In a 28-20 loss there in Week 6, the Patriots' comeback attempt was stymied by three big drops in the fourth quarter -- two by Branch and one by fellow wide receiver David Givens.
The miscues symbolized a frustrating day for the Patriots' offense as New England snoozed through the first half and fell behind 28-3 in the third quarter. When the Patriots finally got going they discovered that the hole they had dug for themselves was too deep.
"As an offensive player, you always feel like you leave a lot of things on the field, which we have done this season," said Branch, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. "Last season, I can (remember) a couple of games where we went out and played a solid game. This year we haven't played a perfect game or the type of game we want to play on the offensive side of the ball."
Branch, who set career highs in catches (78) and receiving yards (998) this season, had seven catches for 87 yards in the first meeting with the Broncos. He had only two receptions for 36 yards against the Jaguars last week, although those stats would have been much better had he hung onto that bomb.
"I am not going to get down on myself because I know I am not perfect," Branch said. "At the same time, I have to make that play for my team, and I didn't. All the guys were like, 'Hey, we're going to get you the ball back. That play is dead. You're better than that. Don't worry about it.' That's the type of players we have on our team. Who is to say what would happen on another team? I thank God that I am here with these guys."
Not many teams can stop the Denver Broncos' rushing attack, but the New England Patriots haven't allowed much on the ground lately.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has repeated one statistic this week -- in the second half of the season the Patriots allowed 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. That doesn't count a regular-season finale against Miami when the Patriots rested many starters.
"That's unprecedented," Shanahan said. The matchup will be strength vs. strength. The Broncos won't give up their running game. They were second in the NFL with 33.9 rushing attempts per game.
"We're going to still stick to what we do," receiver Ashley Lelie said. "We don't worry too much about what they're doing. We got our plan and our system and we'll stick with it."
The Broncos rushed for 178 yards against New England on Oct. 16. But the Patriots were missing some key players in that game, including defensive lineman Richard Seymour and linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
The Broncos will try to exploit whatever they can on New England's defense, but they know that it will be difficult to find any.
"If you do pick up a weakness, it's not there very long," Shanahan said. "You have to adjust throughout the whole game, and they are fundamentally sound. They play good solid football."
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