Denver Broncos (4-2) at New England Patriots (3-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN (Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya)
SERIES: 40th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series 24-15, including a 5-1 record since 2001, including a Broncos playoff win in 2005. Denver is the only team in the NFL with a winning record against New England during that time.
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Broncos QB Jay Cutler has seen his production dip the past three games as injuries have continued to rob him of key weapons outside of WR Brandon Marshall. Denver has also been struggling with miscues in terms of protecting the ball and capitalizing inside the red zone. The one recent revelation has been 33-year-old RB Michael Pittman, who is taking charge of the feature role and providing the Broncos with more of a power running attack. But this game will be decided by how effectively Cutler attacks the Patriots' struggling secondary, and CB Deltha O'Neal in particular. ... The Broncos secondary might be just what the doctor ordered for Patriots QB Matt Cassel after a rough outing in San Diego. Denver's opponents are completing 72.7 percent of their passes, with a good portion directed at CB Dre' Bly while most shy away from Champ Bailey. Perhaps more important than Cassel's inexperience has been the lack of a strong running game. The Broncos are vulnerable to big runs, but who in the Patriots' backfield is going to step up as the go-to workhorse?
KEY INJURIES: Broncos: TE Tony Scheffler (groin) and WR Brandon Stokley (concussion) appear likely to sit another game; WR Eddie Royal (ankle) should return this week. Patriots: RB LaMont Jordan (calf) appears likely to miss his second straight game; RB Laurence Maroney (shoulder) is uncertain.
FAST FACTS: The Broncos are 7-0 when Cutler has a passer rating of at least 100. ... Patriots coach Bill Belichick is 2-9 in his career against Denver.
--WR Brandon Stokley said he felt better Thursday for the first time since suffering a concussion last week against Jacksonville. But Stokley has yet to be cleared by doctors and hasn't returned to practice.
--TE Tony Scheffler has been a limited participant in practice this week with a groin injury. The team is unlikely to take an unnecessary risk on Scheffler this week with the bye coming up in Week 8.
--RB Selvin Young has a groin injury and has been limited in practice. His status for this week's game is unclear. If he does return, it will be in a smaller role behind Michael Pittman.
--LB Boss Bailey practiced Thursday. He sat out Wednesday with an ankle problem. Although his ankle is unlikely to be 100 percent healthy anytime soon, Bailey is a good bet to play this week.
--S Calvin Lowry appears set to replace Marlon McCree as Denver's starting free safety after taking the reps with the first-team defense during the open periods of practice. Lowry was a starter with the Titans for most of last season.
--LT Matt Light returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's session with an ankle injury. Light should be in the starting lineup Monday night against Denver.
--CB Jonathan Wilhite missed practice Thursday with flu-like symptoms. The severity of his illness is unknown at the time, though the injury report will be released Friday.
--LB Eric Alexander missed another practice Thursday with a hamstring injury and likely won't play Monday. Alexander could be a candidate for injured reserve if and when G Stephen Neal is ready to play.
--WR Kelley Washington also missed practice Thursday with an ankle injury and could be an injured reserve candidate as well considering the Patriots have two players who've recently been activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list -- G Stephen Neal and tackle Oliver Ross.
--RBs Laurence Maroney (shoulder) and LaMont Jordan (calf) missed practice Thursday and are in danger of being inactive Monday night, which is bad news for the Patriots given their lack of consistency in the running game.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall promises better ball security, but no changes in his aggressive approach.
Marshall said after Sunday's game that maybe he has to ditch the moves that made him the NFL's leader in yards after contact last season. Against Jacksonville last Sunday, he lost a fumble at the Jaguars' 7-yard line, his second devastating fumble this season in a Broncos loss.
He had changed his tune by Thursday, saying he wouldn't change anything.
"I could be a great receiver without all of those fancy moves, but that's what keeps me playing this game," Marshall said. "I have fun out there every time I make a guy miss and see the expression on the guy's face when I go back to the huddle or guys on the sidelines or the reaction from the crowd. That's what keeps me going."
Marshall leads the NFL with 43 receptions. He has never had a problem with fumbles -- he lost only one last year in 107 touches -- and his latest bout with fumbling was bothersome. He said he had been thinking of his fumble against the Jaguars all week.
Against Jacksonville, he said the ball wasn't knocked loose, he just dropped it when he went to make a move.
"It's just one of those things that you get caught up in the moment and the situation of the game and you forget about the most important thing and that's ball security," Marshall said.
Some fans want Kevin O'Connell at quarterback. Some media members do too. Matt Cassel takes it all in stride. Job security? That's not an issue now and never will be as far as Cassel is concerned.
"Unless told otherwise," Cassel said Thursday, "I'm just going to go out there and play the position and do it to the best of my ability."
According to most of Cassel's critics, that's the problem -- ability, or lack thereof. Though the defense has taken most of the blame for Sunday's loss (and rightfully so), Cassel struggled against San Diego's relentless pass rush, particularly in the red zone, where he missed two open receivers and got sacked on fourth-and-goal in a critical turnover on downs at the start of the third quarter.
Statistically, the Patriots have been better in the red zone of late, scoring touchdowns on three of their last five attempts, but they endured a horrific dry spell prior to the San Francisco game in which they scored only two touchdowns in 10 tries.
"Anytime you get in the red area, the windows close," Cassel said. "Everything happens a little bit quicker because there is obviously not as much field to defend. You just have to make quicker decisions and get the ball out to your receivers without as much time."
Sunday's third-quarter meltdown notwithstanding, the Patriots made slight improvements in the red zone during their West Coast trip and Cassel admits the game is beginning to slow down for him as he continues to gain experience as a starter.
"There are a few plays that definitely come up through the course of a game, in a number of games, where you say, 'Gosh, I wish I would've done this,' or, 'I wish I would've done that,'" Cassel said. "That's what you learn from as a young quarterback. You try to build on that and put it away in your memory bank so the next time it comes up you can that correction and be better off.
"I feel comfortable with what we're doing."
Head coach Bill Belichick agrees. Asked on Monday if he'd entertain the thought of replacing Cassel with O'Connell, Belichick said, "Matt's our quarterback. He gives our team the best chance to win."
Since his confidence has never wavered, Belichick's ringing endorsement has made no impact one way or the other on Cassel's preparation this week.
"I think I've had the vote of confidence from the coaching staff all along," Cassel said, "otherwise I wouldn't be in the position that I'm in. Just because we lose a game, I don't feel I should be worried about my job, to be completely honest.
"We are 3-2 right now and one back of Buffalo (in the division). I'm sure there are a lot of teams wishing that they were 3-2. Do we need to go out and have more production? Of course we do. That's what we're working toward right now. We're not 0-5. I will tell you that much. We're still working to get better. I'm maturing every week and that's what we're going to work toward."
All eyes will be on the Patriots when the host the Denver Broncos on Monday night -- with Cassel, not O'Connell, as the team's starting quarterback.
"I think eyes are always on us to perform," Cassel said. "Obviously, there has been a standard here -- a very high standard -- for however many years. We have to come out and perform and put points on the board in order to win."
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