Patriots Face Broncos As A New Team

The New England Patriots took on the look of defending champions when they scored 21 unanswered points in the second half against a solid Jacksonville Jaguars team. "... all of a sudden instead of us having an opportunity to keep it close, it got blown open," said Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. Good teams do that to their opponents. That's what the Denver Broncos did to New England in October. The new-look Patriots have their swagger back, and it doesn't bode well for Denver.

PHOTO: New England Patriots wide receiver Andre Davis breaks away from Jacksonville Jaguars Marcellus Wiley during their wild card playoff football game in Foxborough. Mass. Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Once a team makes it to the NFL's second season, to some degree all bets are off. It no longer matters that the Patriots had few quality wins during the regular season or that the team played utterly inconsistent for the bulk of the year.

Now, more than anything else, fresh off a 28-3 win over the Jaguars on wild card weekend, the Patriots are simply a two-time defending champion, veteran-laced team with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick that's riding an NFL record 10-game postseason winning streak. Maybe more importantly, after a season of defensive struggle, allowing big plays and searching for some degree of continuity in the secondary on a weekly basis, New England is rounding into the type of solid defensive football team that's helped win three Super Bowls in the last four seasons.

The defending champs know that defensive improvement over the last month-plus, one that has seen the secondary jell while the front seven has shut down opposing rushing attacks and pressured the passer, is key heading in Sunday afternoon's divisional playoff meeting with the Broncos in the Mile High city. Denver knocked off the Patriots 28-20 in Week 6 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score might indicate. The Broncos jumped out to a 28-3 lead early in the third quarter and seemed to take their proverbial foot of the gas to let New England tighten the score over the final quarter and a half.

But the numbers from that game don't lie. Tatum Bell rushed for 114 yards on just 13 carries, while both he and Mike Anderson found the end zone. Rod Smith, a Patriots killer from way back, caught six passes for 123 yards and one score, including a big 72-yard play. And Jake Plummer threw for 262 yards and two scores with no interceptions on 17-of-24 completions for a 134.4 passer rating. That, my friends, is a good old-fashioned balanced offensive butt whooping.

But as far as the Patriots are concerned that game included a very different, much lesser New England team than the one that will take the field Saturday night at Invesco Field. While no Belichick team will ever use injuries as an excuse, or much else for that matter, this is new, much more confident and productive Patriots team that Jake Plummer and Co. will have to face.

"We don't make excuses for our losses," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said before actually learning which team New England would face. New England could also have potentially played the Colts in the divisional round, another team that beat up on the Patriots during the middle of the regular season. "We play fair and square. They outplayed us. We are not going to say we were banged up or we didn't have anybody. We went out there and we faced them like men. They beat us. We don't have any excuses. But none of that really matters right now. All that matters is whomever we face has to prepare for us and we have got to prepare for them. The best team is going to win."

For that to be the Patriots, they will have to show they are a much different team than the Broncos faced in the middle of the season. Based on the way the team has performed over the last month-plus, dominating on defense and making the key plays on offense, the Patriots can at least make a strong argument that's exactly the case. But going into Denver and proving it against the No. 2 seed in the AFC is still quite the challenge, even for the growing and undefeated legend that is Brady, Belichick and the Patriots dynasty.

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