By: Ian Logue/PatsFans.com
October 23, 2002

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FOXBORO, MA -- It's been quite a while since the Patriots have faced a must win game, but Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos certainly fits that criteria.

Make no mistake, it may be one of the biggest games the Patriots will play all season.

Head coach Bill Belichick has had plenty of time to look back on all the mistakes his team made over the course of New England's three-straight losses, and the players have also likely thought about what they've done wrong and what they'll need to do better, and now it's finally time to get it done on the field.

A loss will put them in tough shape, with a record of 3-4 and facing a road trip that takes them through Buffalo, Chicago, and Oakland. It's not going to be easy to go on the road and win three straight games against three very good football teams, and as it stands right now it will probably take a 7-3 finish just to end up with a record of 10-6, a record that may not necessarily get them into the postseason.

So for now it's all about Denver, a team that is coming off of an overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs and is playing very good football. Belichick has had plenty of time to prepare for this football team, but now the big question will be how the team bounces back from their three game skid.

"What I am looking for from the team in practice this week is the same thing I look for every week, which is a team that is attentive, that is paying attention to detail and that is trying to execute the game plan both from a fundamental standpoint and a team communication standpoint the way it's designed to go," said Belichick on Wednesday. "If we can do that and prepare and understand our opponent, what their threats are, and how we can best handle those threats, then it will come down to execution in the game and that's really what our challenge is every week during the week."

One of those challenges is that they'll be facing a Denver team that is able to run the football, an area where the Patriots have struggled recently. They have rookie runningback Clinton Portis who rushed for 70-yards on 15 carries including a touchdown last weekend against Kansas City, and leads the team in rushing with 451-yards on 88-carries. Playing behind him is Mike Anderson who has carried the football 43-times for 210-yards.

With the way New England's run defense has been playing the Broncos are likely looking forward to facing a defense that has allowed over 100-yards rushing in each of the last four games. That isn't exactly encouraging considering the Patriots are facing a Denver team that is fourth in the league in rushing yards per game, averaging 133.4 yards on the ground per contest.

That being said Denver has won their last 18 games each time they've had a runningback break the 100-yard plateau. New England will need to play like the team that held Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin in check in their first two wins if they hope to not end up as Denver's next victim.

The game also has even more importance from a playoff standpoint. Denver is battling with San Diego who is 6-1, and Oakland who is 4-2, and if these three teams continue playing well the two teams that don't win the AFC West will also likely be in the running for the one AFC Wild Card spot. Should the Patriots end up being in the hunt themselves if they can't win the AFC East, head-to-head results could make the difference of whether or not they earn a post season birth.

Which only makes Sunday's game even just that much more important.

"They have a real good scheme and a lot of fast players," said Belichick. "They're just a good football team all the way around. That's a big challenge for us this week and we'll need to be at our best. This is a real impressive team coming in here."

INJURY UPDATE

Despite the time off the team's injury report hasn't changed very much, with Joe Andruzzi (Knee), Troy Brown (Knee), Daniel Graham (Shoulder), Rick Lyle (Back), Anthony Pleasant (Shoulder), and Grey Ruegamer all listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Meanwhile Belichick announced that Steven Neal has been placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, an injury that likely took place in the infamous lateral play during the Green Bay Game when Neal was the only Patriot who dove on the loose football. "He had a shoulder problem and is going to have surgery on that," said Belichick. "That unfortunately will put him out for the year. I thought [he] was really making some progress and doing a lot of good things. It's an unfortunate set-back but hopefully he will be able to get [the surgery] done early enough where he will still be able to have a good off-season and work on his personal progress that he has done so well with."


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