New England Patriots (3-2) at Denver Broncos (4-1)
Sunday, 4:15 ET
WHERE: Invesco Field at Mile High
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein
RADIO: WBCN 104.1 FM Boston, Sirius 127 (Broncos), 110 (Patriots)
SERIES: 39th meeting. Broncos lead series, 23-15, including a 22-17 win in the lone playoff matchup, on Jan. 4, 1987. The Patriots are 8-14 all-time in Denver. They had lost 10 straight there from 1984-98 but have won two of their last three visits, including a 30-26 decision on "Monday Night Football" in 2003.
2005 rankings: Patriots: offense 5th (24th rush, 4th pass); defense 23rd (20th rush, 22nd pass). Broncos: offense 21st (2nd rush, 26th pass); defense 18th (5th rush, 25th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: The game could come down to Denver's ability, or lack thereof, to get pressure on Patriots QB Tom Brady. RB Corey Dillon is battling an ankle injury, and the Patriots' running game has been sporadic even with him healthy. But the Patriots are averaging 294.8 passing yards and facing a Broncos secondary that could be without CB Champ Bailey for a third consecutive game. Even with Bailey, rookie CBs Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth will get significant playing time and will be targeted whenever Brady has time to survey downfield. With New England's defense suffering from injuries to several key players, Denver will attack heavily on the ground and attempt to wear the Patriots down. QB Jake Plummer has hit on very few deep passes this season and must eventually get big-play WR Ashley Lelie more involved in order to beat quality opponents.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: Brady is on pace to throw for a franchise-record 4,870 yards. The current record is 4,555 by Drew Bledsoe in 1994. Brady's career high is 3,764 in 2002. Broncos: Are averaging 175.8 passing yards, down from 255.6 last season. ... Are 4-0 when scoring first this season.
Arturo Freeman, who signed with the Patriots on Wednesday, participated in his
first two practices. Coach Bill Belichick said he would wait until the end of
the week to decide whether Freeman would be active for Sunday's game in Denver.
--LB Monty Beisel (finger) was added to the injury report on Thursday. He is listed as questionable. Beisel is tied for second on the team in tackles with 33.
--WR Troy Brown was not on the field on Wednesday or Thursday during the time that the media was allowed to view practice. Brown, third on the team in catches (16) and yards (208), was listed as probable with a foot injury.
--DE Richard Seymour is "a lot better than he was last week," according to coach Bill Belichick. Seymour, who sat out last week's game in Atlanta with a knee injury, was not on the field on Wednesday or Thursday during the time that the media was allowed to view practice. He was listed as probable.
--RB Corey Dillon was not on the field on Wednesday or Thursday during the time that the media was allowed to view practice. Dillon suffered an ankle injury late in last week's game and missed the winning drive in the fourth quarter. He was listed as probable.
--LB Willie McGinest was not on the field on Wednesday or Thursday during the time that the media was allowed to view practice. He reportedly broke a bone in his hand last week. He was listed as probable.
--CBs Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay each participated in practice Wednesday and Thursday, although they sat out at least a portion of both sessions. Both players have missed time with ankle injuries, although they are listed as probable.
Champ Bailey only participated in limited reps during practice Thursday. The Broncos
will wait to test until later in the week to his injured hamstring at full speed
but his chances of playing do not appear that strong.
--RB Tatum Bell was put on the injury report this week with a toe injury, but he has practiced all week. He is listed as questionable and shouldn't be hindered at all.
--QB Jake Plummer has been taking care of the ball this season. That's a big reason Denver has gone more than three games without a turnover. The last time Denver turned the ball over was in the third quarter of its Week 2 game against San Diego. They have a streak of 13 straight quarters without a turnover.
--K Jason Elam and Patriots K Adam Vinatieri are the top two scorers in the NFL since the start of the 1996 season. The Broncos and Patriots face each other on Sunday.
--C Tom Nalen moved into seventh on the Broncos' all-time list with his 156th career start last Sunday. Nalen should move into sixth, past CB Louis Wright, before the season is over.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
That's the number of interceptions the Patriots have gotten from their secondary this season.
Gone are the days when Ty Law, Rodney Harrison and Tyrone Poole could end opponents' drives in the blink of an eye. Law is a New York Jet now. Harrison is out for the season with a knee injury. And Poole hasn't played since Week 1 with an ankle problem. Their replacements aren't forcing turnovers, and the Patriots - who rank 29th in points allowed - are paying for it.
New England, which visits Denver on Sunday, has only one interception this season - from linebacker Mike Vrabel. The Patriots have just two fumble recoveries, and one of those was a gift, as Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El flubbed an ill-advised lateral at the end of a 49-yard pass play.
Their three takeaways put the Patriots ahead of only Houston (none) and Washington (two). Only four teams have a worse turnover differential than New England's minus-6.
The Patriots' back-to-back Super Bowl titles were fueled, in part, by a ball-hawking defense. In 2003, they had 41 takeaways and were plus-17 in turnover differential. In 2004, they had 36 takeaways and were plus-9. But with defensive stars such as Law, Harrison and inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi out of the picture, the magic has disappeared so far in 2005.
"We'd like to get them, and statistically we're fighting an uphill battle when we're on the negative turnover ratio and winning games, especially on the road," said coach Bill Belichick, whose team won in Atlanta last week without a takeaway. "We'd like to get more. We work on them. We're going to keep working on them. Hopefully they will come in spurts. Right now, we're in a little bit of a dry spell."
He's right. The Patriots have gone 161 minutes and 8 seconds without a takeaway. Their last one came when free safety Eugene Wilson pounced on Randle El's fumble with 11:08 left in the second quarter of Week 3.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have not turned the ball over in a franchise-record 204 minutes and 31 seconds.
Besides Vrabel's pick, the Patriots had one interception nullified by a penalty in Week 2 and have dropped several potential ones.
Cornerback Duane Starks, whose nose for the ball was one of the reasons the Patriots swung a trade with Arizona for him in the off-season, had an interception in his hands at the New England 12-yard line late in the fourth quarter last week, but could not hang on. Three plays later, the Falcons scored the tying touchdown.
If the Denver Broncos want to beat the defending champion New England Patriots this week, they'll have to improve upon a mediocre performance against the Washington Redskins last week.
The Broncos allowed 447 yards to the Redskins, who aren't known for their explosive offense. Denver hung on to the win when linebacker Ian Gold batted away a pass on a two-point conversion with a little more than a minute to go.
Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said the breakdowns on defense didn't happen because the Broncos were outmanned. They just made a lot of mental mistakes.
"That's concerning," Coyer said. "What happens is if they beat you, that's one thing. If you beat yourself, that's another thing. We've got to quit having those penalties and we've got to not have missed assignments. Because it's hard enough to win as it is."
Coyer said the mistakes, which included lining up in the wrong spots and some defensive penalties, were uncharacteristic for Denver's defense this season. Denver had played stifling defense for three straight weeks before the game against Washington.
Broncos safety Nick Ferguson wasn't that worried about the mistakes because he expected the defensive players wouldn't repeat them.
"The mistakes that were made on Sunday were correctable mistakes," Ferguson said. "If you get physically, you can't do anything about that. If you get beat because of a couple mental mistakes, you can overcome that."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Patriots LT Nick Kaczur and LG Logan Mankins vs. Broncos RDE Trevor Pryce and RDT Gerard Warren: QB Tom Brady was sacked just once last week against Atlanta, which came in leading the league in sacks. That bodes well for the rookie left side of the offensive line, although Kaczur and Mankins will be challenged by Pryce (still looking for his first sack this season after missing 14 games with a bad back in 2004) and Warren (the ex-Brown who has a team-high two sacks and has played well). Kaczur, a rookie from Toledo, took over when Matt Light got hurt. Pryce, who plays on the weak side, and Brown have each been playing well. They need to get some pressure on Tom Brady against Kaczur.
Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Broncos C Tom Nalen: Wilfork has a 39-pound weight advantage, but Nalen (born and raised in the Patriots' back yard in Foxboro, Mass.) has a 10-year experience edge. Wilfork must be sturdy in the middle to stonewall the Broncos' second-ranked running game.
Broncos running backs Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson vs. Patriots defensive front seven: The Broncos will run the same offensive plays for Anderson and Bell, but the two backs' styles are much different. Bell has breakaway speed and Anderson is a powerful downhill runner. The Patriots will have to be ready for the change of pace Bell brings when he comes in the game.
Broncos P Todd Sauerbrun against Patriots KR Bethel Johnson and PR Tim Dwight: Sauerbrun, who is also Denver's kickoff specialist, is coming off a fantastic game against Washington. He'll need to be on top of his game against New England's fast returners.
When: 10/16/05 4:15 ET
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