One of the biggest questions remaining for the New England defense heading into Saturday night's divisional battle with the Broncos in Denver revolves around the secondary. Over the last month the Patriots front seven has essentially shut down opposing ground games and put consistent pressure on the quarterback. That's taken pressure off New England's reworked defensive backfield that includes rookie starter Ellis Hobbs at corner and veteran cornerback Artrell Hawkins as the starting strong safety.
And while continued dominant play from the front would go a long way toward keeping the pressure off the secondary, the players in the group know they have to make plays for the Patriots to continue to advance in the postseason. They've heard the doubts about the defensive backs all season and realize it's just a fact of life in a unit that's lost six players to injured reserve over the course of 2005.
"There are always going to be critics. We just try to go out and play ball," cornerback Asante Samuel said. "We just try to block that out and play Patriots football how we know how to play it. It's playoff time. We have to take it to another level.
"We are here to make plays. You are in the National Football League. You are out there to do something. You can't just be out there for no reason. We just go out and play ball like we know how to play ball."
For Samuel, that included a 73-yard interception return in helping the Patriots defeat the Jaguars last Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. But there were also plenty of Jacksonville wide receivers running free at times in the 28-3 win. Fortunately for the Patriots, Byron Leftwich and company couldn't exploit those openings.
Heading into a meeting with the No. 2 seed Broncos and the efficient passing game led by Jake Plummer, leaving receivers open could be the difference between moving on to the AFC Championship and ending New England's run at an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. Longtime Patriots killer Rod Smith, he of six receptions and 123 yards and one touchdown when the teams met earlier this year at Invesco Field, won't miss open opportunities.
Understanding that, the Patriots believe they are a much different secondary than the one that struggled in Week 6 in Denver. That confidence will be tested on Saturday night.
"We are jelling. We are jelling at the right time," free safety Eugene Wilson said. "We went out there (last Saturday) and had a great showing. Everyone is jelling and it turned out right for us. We have been working hard all season. We've had our ups and downs. And as of late we've been playing real well."
Wilson and Co. will have to prove that against the Broncos if the Patriots are to advance and claim the team's 11th consecutive postseason victory.
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