By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s always an adventure when the Patriots head to Denver. No matter how favorable the matchup may be, life is usually tough on New England when they play in the Mile High city.
For the seventh straight season, the Pats and Broncos will duke it out in a regular season tilt. And while Tom Brady carries a 3-7 record in Denver into the game (his worst road win percentage against any team he’s faced multiple times), the Patriots have won five of their last six matchups with the Broncos. That’s impressive, considering the last three meetings have come at Sports Authority Field.
The road has been kind to the Patriots dating back to last season, winners of 11 straight away from Gillette Stadium. They’ve won four straight overall, and with the Broncos dropping four of five after a 2-0 start to the season, the two teams are heading in opposite directions. All signs are pointing to a road win for the Patriots.
But it’s never that simple when Brady and company play in Denver, and it’s why this game is on national television. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and Broncos square off on Sunday evening:
Heavy Workload For Pass-Catching Backs
Chris Hogan is dealing with a bad shoulder and won’t play, leaving Brady with just three “healthy” receivers to throw to: Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Phillip Dorsett. Amendola is never really 100 percent healthy, so it’s more like 2.5 healthy receivers. Considering Dorsett hasn’t really done much his arrival from Indianapolis, and the Broncos will likely blanket Cooks downfield, the targets should increase for Amendola.
Being so thing at receiver on the depth chart is not an ideal situation heading into a game against one of the best secondaries in the league, but the Patriots knew this would likely be the case when they hit their bye week and Josh McDaniels has been preparing for it these last two weeks. If there is any offense that can deal with a lack of wideouts, it’s the Patriots. They have that giant tight end who is known to catch his share of passes, and when defenses focus most of their attention on him, Brady has a reliable stable of running backs who can haul in short passes and turn them into long gains. Rex Burkhead caught a career-high eight passes two weeks ago against the Chargers, averaging nearly 10 yards per reception, and James White is always a threat to snag 10+ passes. Add in the threat of Dion Lewis, who has taken the reins as New England’s primary back, and the offense should be just fine on Sunday.
As Always, Beware Of Von Miller
The three-time All-Pro must be salivating to get in Brady’s face after back-to-back lackluster performances the last two weeks. Miller has a knack for making life tough on Brady, with five sacks against the QB in his career, and when he disrupts the offense’s rhythm it usually leads to good things for the Broncos D.
He’ll have a favorable matchup on Sunday night, with backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle likely drawing Miller duties with Marcus Cannon sidelined with an ankle injury. Waddle should receive plenty of help, whether it’s from Rob Gronkowski or Burkhead providing an extra bump out of the backfield. The Patriots were determined to limit Miller’s impact last season in their 16-3 win in Denver (after he destroyed Brady with 2.5 sacks in the AFC Championship game the season before), and it will be a big focus again on Sunday night.
Brock Osweiler may be a rich man, but boy is he a bad quarterback. At the moment, he’s the best option the Broncos have, unless a 57-year-old John Elway comes out of retirement. They’d probably settle for Bubby Brister or Brian Griese at this point.
Osweiler had a pair of abysmal outings against the Patriots last season, including his interception festival in the AFC Divisional Round. But it was against the Patriots that Osweiler had one of the best games of his career, tossing for 270 yards and a touchdown (and a pick, of course) in a 30-24 overtime win in Denver two years ago. It was that game that essentially conned the Texans into giving Osweiler a truckload of cash, and he can thank the New England D for that big payday.
But on Sunday, he’ll likely continue to play like crud (he had a QB rating of just 53.4 last week against Philly) against a Patriots defense that has played much better in their last four games.
The Patriots defense appears to have turned a corner since giving up 33 points to the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, surrendering just 12.8 points per game in their four games since. They’ve even kept back-to-back quarterbacks from hitting the 300 passing yard mark (Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers), a streak that should easily continue with Osweiler attempting to throw a football on Sunday.
The Patriots secondary should also get Stephon Gilmore back in the mix after he missed the last three games with a concussion and ankle injury. Some would argue that his return could be detrimental to a unit that is playing so well as of late, but Gilmore had his finest performance in a Patriots uniform the last time he took the field. The Patriots switched to man coverage against the Buccaneers back on October 5, and Gilmore held receiver Mike Evans to just three catches for 26 yards (overall, Evans had just five receptions for 49 yards on the evening).
The communication issues that plagued the secondary were all but gone that Thursday evening, and they haven’t reared their ugly head since. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots use Gilmore in his return, especially if Eric Rowe is also back on the field after battling a groin injury the last month. Malcolm Butler is back to his old self as of late, and Johnson Bademosi filled in admirably during Gilmore and Rowe’s absence. The Patriots will have options in the secondary, and an extremely favorable matchup to re-acclimate their returning corners.