The New England Patriots have a chance to avenge two losses to the Broncos in Denver last season, one of which came in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos (8-5) have the Patriots (11-2), Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) and Oakland Raiders (10-3) left on their schedule, so a loss to New England would significantly increase the chances of them being booted from the postseason.
Here are the Patriots’ keys to victory over Denver.
ESTABLISH THE RUN EARLY
The Broncos’ defense is considered among the best in the NFL, but the Patriots should be able to move the ball against them, especially on the ground. Denver is ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (127.2) and 19th in yards per carry allowed (4.2). The Broncos will be without linebacker Brandon Marshall, who has been ruled out, and Denver’s other starting linebacker, Todd Davis, is questionable. Those injuries won’t exactly help the Broncos’ run defense.
New England ranks seventh in rushing yards per game, is averaging 4 yards per carry and is tied for third in rushing touchdowns with 15. The Patriots’ rushing attack has been bolstered for multiple reasons this season, the improvement of both LeGarrette Blount and the offensive line chief among them. Dion Lewis also is rounding back into shape after multiple knee surgeries.
New England should try to establish the run early in hopes that it can move the ball through the air later in the game with the help of play action.
LIMIT EMMANUEL SANDERS
Demaryius Thomas is the bigger player and more high profile name, but Sanders has been just as good this season and has faired better against the Patriots in recent history. That’s because Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan was a Thomas killer last season. Thomas caught just three passes on 20 targets for 48 yards in two games last season while Ryan was covering him.
Meanwhile, Sanders had 11 receptions on 17 targets for 175 yards in those two matchups. If Ryan can continue his success, then the Patriots should key in on Sanders.
If New England can limit Sanders and Thomas, there essentially are no other weapons left in the Broncos’ offense.
I don’t think Kapri Bibbs, Devontae Booker and AJ Derby are leaving the Patriots shaking in their boots.
RELY ON SHORT PASSES
The primary goal in Week 15 should be to make sure Tom Brady gets out of Sports Authority Field at Mile High in one piece. The Broncos have a four-headed edge-rushing attack, featuring Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett, DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray. Derek Wolfe also can bring the heat from the interior.
The Patriots’ offensive line is better set up to limit those pass rushers, since Nate Solder is healthy this season, Marcus Cannon, David Andrews and Shaq Mason have improved and Joe Thuney has solidified the left guard position, but it’s nearly impossible to stop Miller and Co.
That’s why Brady should rely on short passes to receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, running backs Lewis and James White and tight end Martellus Bennett.
With Marshall out and Davis injured, New England should try to exploit the Broncos’ backup linebackers.
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