By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 23, 2006

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Sooner or later, the scheduling committee will address this sort of thing.

Patriots/Broncos
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 9/24/06
8:15 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
NBC
WHDH-TV 7
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 7 (HD), 932
2006 Team
Records:
Patriots 2-0
Broncos 1-1
Latest Line: Patriots by 6 1/2
Nobody in the northeast complains when the Patriots have to play the Colts every year since they left the AFC East. The reason for that is that the Patriots generally do great against the Baltimore refugees, as long as you ignore the 40-21 pasting Peyton Manning and company laid on the Patriots last year. The Patriots are 4-1 against the Colts since the divisional realignment, and 15-3 against the Colts since 1996.

Against the Broncos, it's the exact opposite. Since John Elway became a Bronco in 1983, Denver happens to be 15-3 against the Patriots. In much the same way the Patriots match up well against the Colts, the Broncos always match up well against the Patriots. Be it Elway, Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Rod Smith or Ed McCaffrey, the Broncos always gave the Patriots something they had no answer for. Elway never lost to the Patriots in his career, and despite all the kudos rightfully paid to Bill Belichick, it seems that Mike Shanahan is the only coach in the NFL capable of outcoaching Belichick.

You were used to seeing the Patriots play the Colts every year, as they were division rivals from 1970 to 2001. But this playing Denver literally every year is getting quite improbable, if not generally annoying. Since 1995, these two teams have met every year except 2004, with Denver holding an 8-3 advantage over that stretch. The Denver media approaches each game with the Patriots as if there is an expectation to win, the fans feel it, and the Broncos usually come through.

Whereas Manning has had some of his worst games against the Patriots, Tom Brady has had some of his worst against the Broncos. He threw the first four picks of his career in 2001 at Invesco Field during a 31-20 loss. He had a passer rating of only 75.4 in a 24-16 home loss to Denver in 2002. And then there were the two eggs laid last year at Invesco, a 79.9 effort in a 28-20 regular season loss, and the playoff fiasco when Brady had all his top guns back only to lose, 27-13 thanks to two interceptions and a 74.0 rating.

All in all, Brady is 1-4 against Denver. The one win, a Monday night 30-27 conquest in Denver, was a classic game, but it was more famous for the intentional safety and the subsequent Bronco meltdown, as well as only having to deal with Danny Kanell at quarterback than anything else. Belichick praised the team afterwards for "good situational football", but moments like that Monday night have been few and far between for the Patriots where the Broncos are involved.

So, you feel like making other plans for Sunday night and just take your chances with the new hot team in the conference on the road next week, that being Cincinnati?

It gets worse. The Patriots make their first appearance on NBC since 1997, when a young Pittsburgh linebacker named Mike Vrabel clobbered Drew Bledsoe and knocked the football out of his hands, securing a 9-7 Divisional Playoff win for the Steelers. Traditionally, Boston teams do lousy on NBC, with the only championships won by the Celtics during their first championship run under Red Auerbach. In fact, the only times Boston teams actually clinched championships on NBC (other finals games which were not clinchers were shown between 1957 and 1962) were 1957 and 1960, when the deciding Game 7's were actually broadcast nationally (the NBA Finals were not covered in full on network TV until 1970). That's been it. The Red Sox won their only TV World Series on Fox, the Patriots have won titles on Fox and CBS, the Celtics won most of their other titles on ABC and CBS, and the Bruins won their only televised Cups on CBS.

There. No mojo on Sunday night at all. Maybe the Patriots ought to just take a second bye week and get ready for the Bengals, and a rough trip to hostile Paul Brown Stadium. Why bother to show up against the Broncos when all they do is play their worst game of the season against them?

Of course, you know that the Patriots would never duck from any challenge. They'll be there, in full view on Sunday night, showing those wiseguys at NBC their new (in NBC's view) stadium. After a pregame show where Jerome Bettis will baselessly predict a Bronco win and Bob Costas will do his best Don Rickles imitation while still thinking he's in Torino at the Winter Olympics, the Patriots will still have to go out there and show everyone that once in a while, long term trends don't always hold up as gospel.

To do that, Brady must not have a stinker like he usually does against Denver. He will see that exotic "11-up" blitz, and the offensive line, tight ends and running backs need to be ready for it. It was this blitz which led to the 100-yard pick by Champ Bailey in January, and it was the same which led to Brady's fumble last week at the Meadowlands. Brady is the key to a win, he absolutely must play a mistake-free game.

The Patriots also must establish the run somehow. With Gerard Warren, Al Wilson and John Lynch up the middle, the Patriots do not have an easy defense to run against. At least the Patriots know this team, but Corey Dillon is now fully healthy and the Broncos have never had to defense Laurence Maroney.

But the biggest problem the Patriots may have to deal with is the Denver quarterback. Jake Plummer had two astounding games last year against the Patriots, which never should have happened given his track record for inconsistency. Chances are it won't happen again Sunday night for the mere reason that Plummer may either not play or get relieved early.

Plummer's passer rating in two games this season is 38.6. Don't be at all surprised if Shanahan goes to rookie Jake Cutler, and possibly for the whole game. Shanahan may believe that Plummer is finally washed up, Cutler is ready, and that Belichick won't know what to do with Cutler if he plays. Normally this sort of thinking is stupefying where Belichick is concerned, but Shanahan (4-2 against Belichick since 2000) is perhaps the only coach in the NFL capable of bamboozling Belichick with this sort of thing. Cutler may simply be the latest in a long line of Broncos with whom the Patriots simply have no answer for.

The Patriots will have the home field, at least, though it did them no good in 2002. The Broncos would be the first NFL team to win more than once at Gillette Stadium were they to win Sunday night. Playing Cutler would be a gamble, but Shanahan is the kind of coach who could make it work. But if the Patriots do bring their "A" game and play mistake-free football for sixty minutes, and if the Patriots throw in a few wrinkles of their own (read: Doug Gabriel, who could be the real key of the game even though he came from one of Shanahan's division rivals), the Patriots should win the game.

Face it, you're sick and tired of the Broncos. 2005 was like a tablespoon of castor oil where Denver is concerned. Beat the Broncos, and the Patriots will hit the highest of Rocky Mountain highs.


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