Game Preview: Patriots at Broncos

WEEK 15 PREVIEW: New England Patriots (10-3) at Denver Broncos (8-5). News, notes, stats, links and more...

New England Patriots (10-3) at Denver Broncos (8-5)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 12/18/11
VENUE: Invesco Field at Mile High
SURFACE: Natural grass
WEATHER: Game day Forecast: Sunny, clear high of 56

TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

PREDICTION: Patriots 33-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: Denver's defense has been overshadowed by Tim Tebow, but the unit has allowed just 30-of-110 (27.2 percent) third down conversions during QB Tim Tebow's eight starts while racking up 25 sacks and 12 takeaways. Patriots QB Tom Brady has some of the league's best third-down weapon in WR Wes Welker and TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. There will be a chess match of matchups and Brady deciphering where the pressure is coming from.

Typically, Bill Belichick devising a scheme to face an inexperienced quarterback who struggles mightily with his accuracy would be a recipe for domination. But Belichick's deck of cards is severely limited with two offensive players regularly contributing to the beleaguered secondary. And Tebow might need to exploit a few assignment breakdowns over the top. Belichick preaches tackling and reading keys, two things that could severely hamper Denver's ground game. Tebow has been at his best late in games with an up-tempo attack after play-action has been established.

FAST FACTS: The Broncos won the last meeting, 20-17, in overtime at home in 2009 with PK Matt Prater kicking the game-winning 41-yard field goal.

STREAKING: The Broncos have a six-game winning streak. ... Brady is 1-5 in his career at Denver. ... This year's Broncos and the 2009 Colts are the only teams in NFL history to win four straight games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter.

Denver Broncos Tim Tebow vs Bears 12/11/11 (Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE)



   Patriots' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien found himself in an awkward position this past weekend when television cameras caught him in the middle of a sideline argument with quarterback Tom Brady, who threw an interception in the end zone on the previous play.

   Turns out the war of words was much ado about nothing; both parties downplayed the incident in the aftermath of New England's 34-27 victory, particularly O'Brien, who proved he isn't afraid to do his job regardless of a particular player's status.

   "When you walk in the door here and you work for Bill Belichick, you're going to learn how to coach and you're going to learn how to play," O'Brien said. "That's one of the things that we pride ourselves on here is coaches and players looking to improve every day and communicating with each other every day.

   "Sometimes communication takes different forms and it's an intense environment, a competitive environment, and the players would want it no other way and the coaches would want it no other way. That's what it is and, again, we're getting ready for Denver and that same type of environment, going into a very hostile environment in Denver against a very good team, so we need to have a great practice week and bring a good game plan out to Denver."

   With the incident behind him, O'Brien is now focusing on how to prepare for Denver's defense, which isn't ranked particularly high -- 22nd overall in points per game allowed and 21st against the run -- but has played well in recent weeks.

   This past weekend, the Broncos held Chicago to 10 points and rallied for an eventual 13-10 overtime win. Two weeks prior to that, they shut down San Diego in a 16-13 win. The biggest key is containing pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, who've combined for 19 sacks this season.

   "Those guys are explosive guys that have different rush techniques -- good speed. It's a fast defense overall," O'Brien said. "We're going to have to do a good job, especially early in the game of getting used to the speed of the game as it relates definitely to those two guys and then the rest of the defense, too. It's a real challenge, especially on the road with the crowd noise and all those different things that will go into the game plan."

   As for his sideline demeanor, O'Brien doesn't plan on changing it anytime soon, though he did get a bit of advice from someone who happened to be watching from home.

   "I heard from my mom to watch my language," he said. "It's just two competitive guys that want the best for the team. We've moved on to Denver; we're getting ready for Denver now."

J. McDaniels
Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels reacts on the sidelines after a fumble recovery by defensive end Elvis Dumervil (92) (not pictured) against the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter at Invesco Field. The Broncos beat the Patriots 20-17. Oct 11, 2009; Denver, CO (Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE)


   There's a giant challenge ahead for Denver's defense -- 6-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski.

   And the approach the Broncos take with the record-setting New England tight end figures to be a varied one.

   It likely will include matching up linebacker Wesley Woodyard, safety Quinton Carter, selected double teams - and, perhaps, even cornerback Champ Bailey.

   Putting Bailey on a team's best receiver has been a consistent option for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. In this case, that choice is two-fold against the AFC's top pass offense: Gronkowski, owner of an NFL single-season record with 15 touchdowns and counting; and Wes Welker, the slot machine who has more catches than anyone in the league since 2007.

   Bailey started the season covering the slot. The thought process was that he could be closer to the quarterback, where he could quickly decipher plays, attack on blitzes and have the short-area quickness to stick with the Welker types.

   But Bailey's since been charged with chasing around some behemoths at wide receiver from Vincent Jackson to Brandon Marshall to Dwayne Bowe and Calvin Johnson. Gronkowski brings even more bulk and perhaps increased physicality to the equation, given the nature of his position.

   "What makes it really tough is when you have a big target and an accurate quarterback," Bailey said, alluding to the Patriots' Tom Brady. "That's a dangerous combination, because it's hard to get around him. No matter if you're faster than him or not, it's just his body - it's the body position that kills you."

   Bailey has matched up against both Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez in their career primes on their way, eventually, to the Hall of Fame. The cornerback said it's critical to gain an edge against those type players in film studies so that it's possible to not get outmuscled in a battle for space.

   "The thing about those two," Bailey said, referring to Gates and Gonzalez, "I think they're faster than (Gronkowski). He doesn't do a whole lot to fool you. It's about getting open. Brady's going to hit it and then he makes a play when he runs with it."

   But the Broncos - particularly with an injury to starting cornerback Andre Goodman - may have to primarily put Bailey on Welker, who arguably makes their passing game flourish. Woodyard in nickel, D.J. Williams in base packages and Carter, then, could primarily see the hard-spiking Gronkowski.

   Gronkowski has a chance to pass Ben Coates' 1994 record for single-season yardage by a tight end, needing 87 yards Sunday. He's already crossed the 1,000-yard plateau on 71 catches.

   "Some teams double him. Some people single him. I think teams try to take away what they like. You just can't be scared to make a play," Carter said. "When the ball's in the air, you've got to make a play on it."

Patriots Rob Gronkowski set the single season touchdown receptionrecord for tight ends (15)  vs the Redskins 12/11/11 (Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE)


   --S Patrick Chung missed another day of practice due to a reoccurring foot injury Thursday and will likely miss another game this weekend. He hasn't played since Nov. 6. 
   --OL Sebastian Vollmer also missed another day of practice Thursday due to back and foot injuries. Barring a miracle recovery, Vollmer will likely miss his third consecutive game.
   --WR/DB Julian Edelman appears to be in the clear regarding legal issues stemming from an alleged incident at a bar on Nov. 1. All previous charges against Edelman have been dropped.
   --LB Brandon Spikes practiced again Thursday. He's recovering from a knee injury and is aiming to play Sunday for the first time since Nov. 6.
   --WR Deion Branch has been limited at practice this week due to a groin injury suffered Sunday in Washington. Branch left during the game and did not return. His status for this weekend is in doubt.
The Cheerleaders Photo Gallery
(Images/US Presswire)
   --LB Wesley Woodyard has been designated the Broncos' Walter Payton Man of the Year recipient for the second straight season for his leadership on the field and in the community. Woodyard has been a Denver team captain for four straight seasons and has worked tirelessly on charitable projects to help children.
   --CB Andre Goodman (concussion) received clearance to return to practice, a huge addition given the challenge presented by New England's second-ranked pass defense. It allows Denver to keep CB Chris Harris in the slot, where he'll be partially tasked with defending Patriots WR Wes Welker.
   --SS Brian Dawkins (neck) was back at practice Thursday. His experience on the back end will be critical with the type of communications necessary to present disguises that give New England's offense pause, and to handle the hurry-up tempo sometimes favored by the Patriots.
   --S David Bruton (Achilles/ankle) missed his second straight practice and he'll likely be questionable for Sunday's game. Bruton has a niche role in Denver's heavy dime but is a key special-teams contributor, as he's tied for the team lead in tackles.
   --S Kyle McCarthy, cut earlier this week to make room for CB Tony Carter, was re-added to Denver's practice squad. Carter was needed on the 53-man roster because of uncertainty over Goodman's availability.

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