SERIES HISTORY: 39th meeting. The Denver Broncos have a 23-15 record against the New England Patriots in the regular season. The Broncos have also won both playoff games, in 1986 and last season. The Broncos beat the Patriots 13-10 in 1960, in the first game in American Football League history.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION
The Patriots played mostly a four-man line against the Jets last week but don't expect them to use the same strategy this week. The 3-4 defense is not only a better front for defending the run -- which the Broncos do very well -- it also allows the outside linebackers to get to the edge and control Jake Plummer.
Plummer really hurt the Patriots last year with rollouts and bootlegs. He was able to do this because the Broncos had success running the football. Even though the Patriots will switch defenses in this game, look for them to primarily use a three-man line against Denver so their inside linebackers can clog the running lanes, while the edge rushers keep Plummer from getting outside the pocket.
The Patriots have started to use a nice rotation with their linebackers. Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau have been playing inside, while Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Tully Banta-Cain have been patrolling the outside. With Bruschi still recovering from his broken wrist, the addition of Seau has really allowed New England to do more things on defense without missing a beat.
The Broncos had some trouble with 3-4 defenses last year. Despite having success against an injured Patriots squad early in the year, Denver's offense struggled against the Chargers, Steelers and Cowboys -- all teams that employ a 3-4 defense similar to the one New England runs. The Patriots enjoyed a great deal of success against the Jets using the 4-3, especially in the first half when they limited New York to just 129 total yards. However, expect a return to the 3-4 this week as the Patriots try to control the Broncos rushing attack inside and make Plummer throw from the pocket by sending two outside linebackers off the edge.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he won't know until watching Quincy Morgan in practice this week if the newly signed receiver will play at New England this week. Denver will probably give Morgan the benefit of the doubt because it needs Morgan to return kickoffs. The Broncos rank 31st in the NFL in kickoff returns. Running back Cedric Cobbs, who returned kickoffs last week, is probably out with an ankle injury. If Morgan can't play, David Kircus would probably be the top option at kickoff returner. Denver released Charlie Adams when it signed Morgan.
Broncos: The Broncos have to figure out how to keep Jake Plummer out of dangerous situations without compromising their offense. Last week the Broncos were very conservative against Kansas City, a direct reaction to a five-turnover game in the season opener. Plummer had four of those turnovers.
The Broncos will still try to get their running game going, but they need to open up the passing game as well. Defensively the Broncos are on a roll. Their challenge this week is slowing down the Patriots running game, controlling the tight ends and putting pressure on New England's receivers to make plays.
Patriots: It sounds simple but the Patriots come into this game against the Broncos with one key goal: stop the run. Everything the Broncos do offensively is predicated off their running game. Jake Plummer is at his best when he uses play-action to set up his bootlegs and rollouts. Tatum Bell and undrafted rookie free agent Mike Bell have been splitting carries so far this season but Tatum is the guy the Patriots will have their eye on.
In their first meeting last year, Bell ran for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots. Despite splitting carries, he leads the Broncos with 172 yards on the ground. Tatum is more explosive than Mike and his speed and quickness is something that can cause the Patriots defense problems. New England is only giving up 75 yards per game on the ground so far this season. If the Patriots defensive front can shut down the Denver rushing attack and force Plummer to throw the ball from the pocket where he's prone to making mistakes, it could be a long night for the Broncos offense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Patriots CB Ellis Hobbs vs. Broncos WR Rod Smith -- Smith has killed the Patriots over the years. In his last five games against New England, the veteran has recorded 36 receptions for 668 yards and two touchdowns. Hobbs has played well so far this year and that trend will have to continue if the Patriots have any hope of finally slowing down the productive Smith.
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Broncos CB Champ Bailey -- This is the much-anticipated rematch between the two Pro Bowlers. Bailey had the upper hand the last time the two teams met when his 100-yard interception return closed the door on the Patriots season. Brady has been waiting all offseason to atone for that pass but unless one of his receivers steps up, he may want to throw away from the All-Pro corner.
Broncos offensive line vs. Patriots defensive line -- Denver's undersized offensive line sometimes struggles against big defensive fronts. The Patriots' line of Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour -- when they use a 3-4 look -- is one of the biggest in the business. The Broncos have also had problems with their zone-blocking scheme against 3-4 defenses, so when the Patriots run a three-man front it will be an important matchup for Denver.
Patriots TE Ben Watson vs. Broncos LB D.J. Williams and S Sam Brandon -- Williams, the strong-side linebacker, and Brandon, the extra defensive back in the "big nickel" package, will be busy against Watson. Watson is New England's leading receiver. If the Broncos can take him out of the game, it would put more pressure on the Patriots receivers to make plays. Brandon matches up well against some of the top tight ends in the AFC West.
Patriots ORT Ryan O'Callaghan vs. Broncos DE's Kenard Lang and Ebenezer Ekuban -- The Broncos rotate their ends based on the strong side of the offensive formation. Ekuban and Lang have played well and they'll attack O'Callaghan, a rookie. The Broncos need to get some pressure on quarterback Tom Brady if they want to force some turnovers.
Patriots: Corey Dillon was injured late in the game against the Jets and while he currently isn't listed on the injury report, it would be a huge blow to the Patriots offense if he's limited this week. With their passing game still working out the kinks, New England has been relying on the running of Dillon and Laurence Maroney on offense. As spectacular as Maroney has looked so far, this is a game where Dillon's power running between the tackles would be missed. Denver is a very quick defense, which makes it difficult for teams to run wide on them. If the Patriots are going to have success on the ground against the Broncos this Sunday, they would be best served to pound the ball right at them and Dillon is obviously a huge part of that gameplan. There's no question Maroney is the real deal but having the 1-2 punch of Dillon and the rookie to wear down the Broncos defense won't have the same effect if the 240-pound bulldozer isn't a part of the equation.
Broncos: WR Rod Smith suffered a concussion last week but he will be ready to play. He practiced on Wednesday.
-- DE Courtney Brown will likely miss another game. His injured knee isn't improving. The Broncos hope he's ready after the bye week but that isn't a sure thing.
--RB Cedric Cobbs has a sprained right ankle and will miss this week's game against New England. Cobbs could return after Denver's bye in Week 4.