NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The Patriots made only one minor change to the roster by adding practice squad linebacker Bruce Davis, so most of the personnel will be the same this weekend when the team heads to Denver.
Wes Welker's return last weekend made a difference offensively, so expect to see more of the speedy slot receiver when the Patriots have the ball Sunday against the Broncos.
Welker's return means less playing time for Julian Edelman, who filled in admirably while Welker was hurt, but it might also open up opportunities for Randy Moss and Joey Galloway. The duo will continue to work the outside, and as long as Welker commands attention in the slot, there will be some one-on-one chances for Tom Brady to take advantage of in the passing game.
GAME PLAN: The Broncos have been pretty balanced thus far, so the Patriots will need everyone on the same page in order to hand Denver its first loss of the season this weekend at Invesco Field.
The key is ball security. The Broncos are plus-7 in turnover differential and have converted those takeaways into valuable points. The Patriots aren't too shabby themselves at plus-2, but they've gotten away with some careless mistakes against Buffalo and Baltimore that might come back to haunt them against a more complete team such as Denver.
Offensively, the Broncos are a ball-control team led by their rushing attack. Quarterback Kyle Orton has been a pleasant surprise thus far, but he's not the type to beat a team single-handedly. The Patriots will be successful if they put him in a position to do so, which all starts with shutting down the Broncos' fourth-ranked running game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CB Leigh Bodden vs. Broncos WR Brandon Stokley. The Broncos aren't known for airing it deep with Kyle Orton behind center, but Stokley's speed makes him a dangerous weapon at any given time. Bodden has done a nice job thus far shutting down opposing receivers and appears to be a long-term fix at cornerback. This will be one of his biggest tests of the young season.
Patriots LB Gary Guyton vs. Broncos RB Correll Buckhalter. Even with a new coach in town, the Broncos are still one of the league's most dangerous teams in terms of running the ball. Buckhalter must be stopped in order to allow the Patriots to put pressure on quarterback Kyle Orton. Guyton is still in the learning stages of his temporary transition to middle linebacker, but he's done a fine job thus far. Like Bodden before him, this may be one of his tougher tests of the season.
Patriots LB Adalius Thomas vs. Broncos TE Daniel Graham. The Patriots drafted Graham seven years ago, so they're familiar with his ability to serve as a pass protector at the line of scrimmage. Thomas would love nothing more than to slip past the line and lay a hand on Orton. In order to do so, he might have to get past Graham first. If the Broncos are wise, they'll use Graham to help absorb the blow by New England's pass rush. This is a good matchup.
INJURY IMPACT: The only serious news is Fred Taylor's ankle surgery reported this week. Other than that, the Patriots will roll into Denver with virtually the same crew they had at home in last week's win over Baltimore. The upside is they have Wes Welker back, which lessens the load for the other receivers and could open up more opportunities for Tom Brady to unload the deep ball if Denver's defense is preoccupied with Welker underneath.
The Broncos will be without running back Correll Buckhalter this week because of an ankle injury, but there probably won't be much change on the roster or in the lineup.
Denver feels it has good depth at tailback in Knowshon Moreno, LaMont Jordan and Peyton Hillis. Although Moreno likely will start, Jordan and maybe Hillis could also get some carries. If the Broncos need to add a tailback to the roster, they have Darius Walker on the practice squad.
GAME PLAN: The Broncos have to get pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. That hasn't been a problem this season, but Denver could dial up a few more blitzes to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. The Jets blitzed Brady often and held New England to nine points. Denver is also wary of New England's rushing game, which they have used effectively the past couple weeks.
Offensively, the Broncos have to figure out the best way to attack New England's balanced defense. New England is big across the line, so the Broncos could spread the field a bit more than the past couple weeks and try to use their speed to get mismatches.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Broncos CB Champ Bailey vs. Patriots WR Randy Moss. Last year, Bailey was doing a good job against Moss before being knocked out of the game with a groin injury. Moss had two touchdowns in the second half with Bailey out. Both players are longtime veterans still playing at very high levels. Bailey was named AFC defensive player of the week. Although Tom Brady has said he won't challenge Bailey much, he won't have much choice if Bailey is shadowing his top receiver.
Broncos LT Ryan Clady vs. Patriots DE Jarvis Green. The Broncos are concerned about the size of New England's front seven, especially with the Patriots using some more 4-3 looks. Clady and Green will be a key matchup along the lines when the Broncos want to run the ball. Green is a big end at 285 pounds but Clady is a good run blocker. The Broncos have to establish a running game to keep Tom Brady off the field.
INJURY IMPACT: RB Correll Buckhalter's ankle injury could keep him out of this week's game. He didn't practice Wednesday and would need to make a fast recovery to play on Sunday.
--LB Spencer Larsen is still out of practice with a shoulder injury. He could return soon but it doesn't appear he'll be available for this week's game.
--S Brian Dawkins was out of practice Wednesday with knee and shoulder injuries, but there are no indications he won't play Sunday.
--G Ben Hamilton returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday. He missed last week's game with a hamstring injury but could return this week.
--CB Alphonso Smith was limited in Wednesday's practice with an ankle injury. He could return after missing one game, but the Broncos won't rush him back if he's not fully healthy.
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