The New England Patriots will visit Sports Authority Field on Sunday night for a matchup with a team they seem to square off against every season: the Denver Broncos.
This will be the 18th meeting between the Patriots and Broncos since 2001 and the 11th at Mile High, where New England is just 3-7 since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback more than a decade-and-a-half ago.
Here’s what to watch for in the latest Patriots-Broncos clash:
The Patriots will be down at least three starters for this game, as wide receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder), offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) and defensive tackle Malcom Brown (ankle) all have been ruled out.
Five other Patriots are listed as questionable: wide receiver Danny Amendola (knee), defensive end Cassius Marsh (shoulder), cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin), and newly reacquired tight end Martellus Bennett (shoulder).
Gilmore said earlier this week he will play, and it will be intriguing to see how he now fits into a secondary that seemed to improve in his absence. Amendola’s presence will be key, as Brady likely will rely on him more with Hogan out.
Bennett is a wild card. If healthy, he could provide a huge boost to a Patriots offense that has struggled in the red zone and has gotten next to nothing from its backup tight ends this season. He’s been back with the team for just a few days, but he already knows New England’s offense from having played in it all last season.
Over on the Broncos’ side, receiver Emmanuel Sanders, linebacker Todd Davis and offensive tackle Donald Stephenson all are questionable.
PATRIOTS’ OFFENSE VS. BRONCOS’ DEFENSE
The matchup to watch here is on the edge.
Von Miller is one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers, and he’ll be going up against a shorthanded Patriots offensive line. With Cannon, who shut Miller down when these teams met last December, unavailable, LaAdrian Waddle likely will get the nod at right tackle and should see plenty of the Broncos’ All-Pro linebacker throughout the night.
Waddle did a commendable job against the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Chargers — two teams with potent pass rushers — earlier this season, but keeping the dynamic Miller away from Brady will be a tall task.
Amendola also comes into play here, as Brady will need to get the ball out quick with Denver’s talented front seven bearing down on him. Phillip Dorsett, who has just four catches in eight games this season, is another player who should see his role grow in Hogan’s absence.
As for the ground game, the Broncos have been excellent against the run this season, ranking fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and second in yards allowed per carry.
PATRIOTS’ DEFENSE VS. BRONCOS’ OFFENSE
The Broncos’ offense has been abysmal for much of this season, failing to crack 20 points in five consecutive games before extended garbage time allowed them to notch 23 in last Sunday’s blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Even in that game, they managed just one offensive touchdown.
Quarterback play has been particularly weak for the Broncos, who last week turned to Brock Osweiler after Trevor Siemian threw 10 interceptions over Denver’s first seven games. Osweiler will start Sunday, as well, after tossing two picks of his own against Philly.
Having Brown out is a big loss up front for the Patriots, who this week signed veteran Ricky Jean Francois to bolster their defensive line depth. New England also is thinner than expected at linebacker and on the edge after a setback prevented Shea McClellin from returning from injured reserve.
If Gilmore does, in fact, return after missing the last three games, the Patriots could choose to stick him on Demaryius Thomas for most of the night and have Malcolm Butler handle the smaller, quicker Sanders — similar to the way they approached Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in Week 5.
Thomas had a solid game against the Patriots last season (seven catches, 11 targets, 91 yards) but was invisible in the teams’ previous two matchups, catching a total of just three passes on 20 targets for 48 yards.
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