New England Patriots (3-1) at Denver Broncos (4-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
SERIES: 41st regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series 24-16, and have had rare success against the Bill Belichick-led Patriots with victories in five of the last regular-season and playoff meetings between the two teams. The Patriots, however, snapped a three-game losing streak against Denver last season. Overall, they are 8-17 in Denver, including two playoff losses.
PREDICTION: Broncos 22-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The chess match between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and protege Josh McDaniels is the game within the game. McDaniels has built an offense that doesn't create a lot of big plays, but is versatile and can be effective running four-receiver sets or double tight ends. Rookie RB Knowshon Moreno will have to play a bigger role with Correll Buckhalter's (ankle) status uncertain. New England's offense has become increasingly balanced, with QB Tom Brady throwing fewer passes each week. The ground game has become more integral after the Patriots struggled with protection against the Jets in Week 2.
FAST FACTS: New England has scored on each ensuing drive following the four fumbles it has forced and recovered. ... The Broncos will wear throwback uniforms from 1960-61 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the AFL.
--RB Fred Taylor did not practice Thursday and will need surgery on his injured ankle. Taylor isn't expected to miss the rest of the season, but could be out for at least a month.
--WR Randy Moss, who had missed most of the week in practice with a back injury, was back on the field Thursday and will be ready to go this weekend in Denver. Moss hasn't missed a game despite his limited participation in practice this season.
--LB Adalius Thomas was not present during the media portion of Thursday's practice, though his status is uncertain at this time. Most likely, Thomas will be a game-time decision and should be available Sunday.
--DL Mike Wright has been fined $5,000 for a roughing the passer penalty committed in Sunday's win over Baltimore. According to Wright, the fine was levied because Wright grabbed quarterback Joe Flacco's facemask. He plans to appeal the fine.
--RT Nick Kaczur has participated in a limited amount of practice this week, but should be ready to go Sunday in Denver despite an ankle injury. Kaczur is one of the keys to New England's pass protection, which will be crucial against the defense-minded Broncos.
--RB Correll Buckhalter missed the first two days of practice this week with an ankle injury. He hasn't been ruled out, but it doesn't appear he will be ready to play Sunday.
--S Brian Dawkins has missed two practices this week with knee and shoulder injuries, but he doesn't appear in much danger of missing Sunday's game. Dawkins has been out at practice, watching his teammates, which most injured Broncos players don't do.
--LB Spencer Larsen missed Thursday's practice and will miss his fifth consecutive game with a shoulder injury. If he isn't ready next week, he could return after the team's Week 7 bye.
--G Ben Hamilton has practiced on a limited basis this week. It appears he will try to play despite a hamstring injury, although the last time he started, against Oakland in Week 4, he had to leave the game early.
--CB Alphonso Smith (ankle) has practiced twice this week, on a limited basis. If Smith isn't 100 percent and can't play, Jack Williams would continue to see action. Williams is coming off a solid game at nickel cornerback.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Just when things were rolling along offensively for the New England Patriots, they got hit with some bad -- but by no means debilitating -- news.
Veteran running back Fred Taylor, who provided a much-needed spark through the first three games of the season, injured his ankle against the Baltimore Ravens last week and will require surgery.
The good news? Taylor isn't expected to miss the rest of the season. Still, this is a semi-major blow to the Patriots and their running game, which had began to form some sort of an identity after a slow start.
Taylor's injury puts more pressure on Laurence Maroney to carry the load. Can he handle this responsibility? Based on his performance last year and through four games this year, no, but the Patriots have no choice but to see what he can do with Taylor on the sideline.
Maroney has struggled thus far and was relegated to more of a backup role in the aftermath of Taylor's emergence. Then again, he was brought here and acquired through the use of a first-round draft pick to be a franchise back, so now would be a good time to start performing like one.
Nonetheless, the Patriots will also need help from their supporting cast, which includes reliable veteran Kevin Faulk and fellow old-timer Sammy Morris. Both have settled into comfortable roles with the team since Week 1, but may be asked to do more in the upcoming weeks.
With a big game against the Broncos coming up, the Patriots will need all the help they can get to make life easier for Tom Brady. Taylor has had a history of injury problems in the past and has played a full season just twice in his career, so it's understandable if the Patriots are nervous.
For now, though, the Patriots have to keep their minds on the present and find a way to replace a crafty veteran who added a sizeable boost to their running game. This will take a collaborative team effort.
Every week, the Broncos insist there's nothing wrong with receiver Eddie Royal and say he is due for a breakout. Then each week, Royal has a quiet game.
Royal, who had 91 catches as a rookie last season, has eight catches for 58 yards in four games combined this season. Various theories have been tossed about for Royal's inactivity, including whether he and quarterback Kyle Orton don't have good chemistry.
Orton said the opposite is true.
"I think Eddie and I have probably the best rapport with all of our receivers," Orton said. "We have worked extremely hard, and Eddie is one of those guys that stays after practice every day to run routes and make sure he is doing everything that I want him to do. He has worked hard. We would love to get him the ball more. Maybe it will be the week."
Orton said he thinks Royal will have a big game soon. The Broncos offense is predicated on hitting the open man and not forcing touches to anyone, so fortunes can rise and fall week to week.
Royal, who hasn't complained about his role or lack of statistics, is being watched closely by opponents. They have played some zone to his side to negate his vertical ability, and sometimes they have given him double-team treatment.
"They have certainly been aware of him inside and out," Orton said. "They have done a great job of making sure they know where he is at and relating to him and trying to take him away, but Eddie is the type of guy that can beat double coverage."
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