PREVIEW: Patriots - Broncos
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The Denver Broncos ended last season with a dreadful performance at Gillette Stadium, one that in part led to their pursuit of a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Having been on the winning side in recent games against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Peyton Manning will try to deliver some redemption for the Broncos in Sunday's matchup of 2-2 teams.
Denver ended a five-year playoff drought in 2011 and won its opening-round game in overtime with Tim Tebow leading the way. The Broncos, though, were shellacked 45-10 the next week in New England as Tebow went 9 of 26 for 136 yards while Brady threw for 363 and matched a career high with six touchdowns.
When Manning became available following 14 years in Indianapolis, the Broncos were among the eager suitors and eventually signed him to a five-year, $96 million deal.
Following some early difficulties coming off a season-long absence due to neck surgeries, Manning appeared to find his groove in last week's 37-6 rout of Oakland. After completing only half of his passes in a loss to Houston on Sept. 23, he was 30 of 38 against the Raiders for a season-high 338 yards and three touchdowns.
Manning wasn't sacked for the first time this season and didn't throw an interception for the third time in four contests.
"The key that I've said all along is just trying to keep making progress somehow," Manning said. "That doesn't always show on the scoreboard - you'd like to win every game as you're feeling your way and learning about your team and learning about yourself a little bit.
"So, there's still a lot of that going on, for me out there as the quarterback, and for our team, sort of figuring things out."
Manning will try to keep that momentum going against his longtime rival. He has won four of the past six matchups with Brady, including the AFC championship game Jan. 21, 2007, but the New England quarterback has prevailed in eight of the 12 overall between the two superstars.
"We've had our fair share of meaningful games against a Peyton Manning-led offense when he was with the Colts," Brady said. "He seems like he's got this team really in the hunt as well. They lost two very close games and were in it right until the end. He's a phenomenal player, leader and quarterback and it's great watching him play out there."
Brady is coming off a dominant performance of his own and a much-needed one for his team. Avoiding their first three-game losing streak in a decade, the Patriots blew out Buffalo 52-28 last week after falling behind 21-7.
Brady had three touchdown passes and ran for another score while leading six consecutive touchdown drives in the second half and New England became the second team in NFL history to have two 100-yard rushers (Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley) and receivers (Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski) in the same game.
The Patriots defense allowed more than 300 passing yards for the second straight week but also forced six turnovers.
"We need to do a better job starting the game and that's what we're focused on," wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said, "starting the game, staying out of long-yardage situations, being more productive on second and third down.
"We're not going to sit here and take any moral victories about how we performed in the second half because our first half was not what we expect to perform like on Sunday."
The Patriots performed superbly in their two matchups with Denver last season, outscoring the Broncos by a combined 86-33 and gaining more than 450 yards in each game.
Denver, though, has a new defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, and four new defensive starters in this game: cornerback Tracy Porter, safety Mike Adams, tackle Justin Bannan and rookie end Derek Wolfe. The Broncos are ranked in the top 10 in average points and yards allowed after ranking 24th and 20th, respectively, a year ago.
"They're active. They're very fast. Their secondary is quite different than what we played back in January," said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Denver's former head coach. "We have to do a good job of trying to defend, if you will, all the different things that they throw at you."
Sunday's game will feature another reunion with Dan Koppen expected to start at center for Denver in place of the injured J.D. Walton. Koppen was signed three weeks ago after being released by New England, where he played nine seasons.
Lloyd will be facing Denver for the first time since the Broncos traded him to St. Louis last season, and Gronkowski will get a chance to face his brother Chris, a fullback for Denver.
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