By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are traveling back out to Denver for the third time in a little more than a calendar year, though this time the circumstances are unquestionably unique.
When the Patriots trekked to Denver in Week 12 last season, it was a battle of 10-0 vs. 8-2, a meeting of the best teams in the AFC. Sure enough, that designation proved to be true when they met again eight weeks later for the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos won both of those narrow contests — 30-24 in overtime in the regular season meeting, 20-18 in the postseason — but find themselves this year heading into New England week as the definite underdog.
Overall, the Broncos own just an 8-5 record, and they’re fighting to nab a wild-card berth in the postseason. Doing so won’t be easy, not with visits from New England and Oakland as well as a trip to Kansas City remaining on the schedule. They’ve also undergone a downgrade at the quarterback position, something that seemed impossible after Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler combined to throw 19 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Though second-year QB Trevor Siemian’s stats look better than last year’s output, he’s shown his inexperience numerous times throughout the season, having started four of those five losses. Rookie Paxton Lynch has looked like a rookie in his two starts.
Even though circumstances are different, the game remains vitally important for both teams. The Patriots, at 11-2, will be trying to maintain their spot atop the AFC, in line to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Broncos, meanwhile, desperately need a victory to remain in the postseason picture.
Here’s what to expect when this one kicks off on Sunday.
That Denver D
The only reason the Patriots even made last year’s AFC title game interesting was because Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski went full Best-Players-In-The-World Mode in the fourth quarter. Over the final eight-plus minutes in January, Brady was 4-for-7 for 77 yards and a touchdown when throwing to Gronkowski. This time, of course, Brady won’t have the luxury of having No. 87 running loose up the seam.
So far, that hasn’t proven to be too much of a problem. Since losing Gronkowski early against the Jets, the Patriots are 3-0, averaging 26 points per contest. But two of those games came against the Jets (24th in scoring defense) and Rams (19th). Though facing the Ravens and their top-five defense was no cakewalk, that game did take place in Foxboro.
Playing in Denver, clearly, has proven to be slightly more difficult for the Patriots during the Brady era. And while different circumstances in each game have contributed to that 2-7 record in Denver, the results speak for themselves.
And so, as a collective unit, the offense is going to be tasked with functioning on a highly effective level. That was not how they functioned last January, when Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer and Cameron Fleming spent much of the afternoon grasping at empty air and, as a result, Brady spent much of the day sandwiched between the cold turf and the bodies of Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and DeMarcus Ware.
Though the Broncos will be without Brandon Marshall, the Denver defense is going to put the pressure on the New England offense across the entire field. If the Patriots want to secure a postseason home-field advantage, they’re really going to have to earn it on Sunday.
Everybody knows that LeGarrette Blount was injured when these teams met last year in the postseason. What’s gotten significantly less attention is another running back who wasn’t there for that game, a man by the name of James Develin.
Now, obviously, it’s 2016, which is not the golden age of fullbacks. They are, perhaps, the most forgotten men in the sport. But for the Patriots, Develin’s role is an important one. And though the straight statistics can make it difficult to measure the impact Develin’s had, the overall success of the team does speak to that effect. After missing Develin for all of 2015, the Patriots went from 30th in rush yards per game to seventh.
That hasn’t all been due to the work of Develin, of course. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia deserves credit, as does the improved play of the offensive linemen themselves, including the addition of rookie Joe Thuney. Likewise, Blount himself has run like a man possessed all year long, as he’s been able to put together the finest season of his career.
The advantage the Patriots have this time — in theory, at least — is the threat of that running game. It was nonexistent in both trips last year, when the Patriots rushed for a grand total of 83 yards on 27 carries over the course of more than eight quarters of football. We’ll see how that advantage plays out in reality, but it should make for a very different game.
The Patriots are the better team on paper, but if there’s anything that can throw the whole game off course, it’s a well-timed interception by the Denver defense.
The Broncos have 12 picks on the year, and they’re spread out fairly evenly. Darian Stewart and Aqib Talib have three apiece; Chris Harris and Bradley Roby each have two; and T.J. Ward and Will Parks each have one.
Brady’s been excellent this season in preventing interceptions, throwing just two picks in his 340 pass attempts. That 0.6 percent interception rate currently stands to be the best of his career — provided, of course, a ball-hawking defense doesn’t disturb his flow.
The Denver D certainly did that last January, intercepting Brady twice — once on a pass to Gronkowski, another on a pass to James White — before intercepting his pass on the would-be game-tying two-point conversion attempt in the waning moments of the game.
And, as history has shown, intercepting Brady multiple times has been the key to beating the winningest quarterback of all time. In games in which he’s thrown multiple interceptions, the Patriots are 19-24 (including playoffs). In all other games, the Patriots are 183-37.
Since 2012, the Patriots are 3-5 when Brady throws more than one interception. They’re 62-16 when he doesn’t.
Clearly, one of the best ways to topple the Patriots is to force Brady into making uncharacteristic mistakes. The Broncos, as much as any team, is sufficiently equipped to do that.
The Scene Of The Crime
Stephen Gostkowski’s been improved lately. After starting the season 9-for-12 on field goals and 19-for-21 on PATs, he’s since gone 11-for-12 on field goals and 18-for-19 on PATs. He earned Special Teams Player of the Week after a perfect 4-for-4 field goal day vs. the Rams, and he appears to be back on track as an accurate, reliable kicker for the Patriots.
But — but! — this weekend will be the real test.
Gostkowski will be returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, as it was last year’s AFC Championship Game when Gostkowski uncharacteristically missed a PAT following a first-quarter Steven Jackson touchdown run. While the Game of Hypotheticals often can’t account for various changes in a game, the fact that the Patriots’ bid for overtime died with a failed two-point conversion attempt sure put some extra light on that missed PAT — which was Gostkowski’s only miss of 2015 with the new PAT rules in place.
The kicker is admittedly hard on himself when he errs, so his early-season struggles this year could easily be tied to that critical miss in Denver.
Now, after turning his season around, it will be fascinating to see how he responds.