DENVER — As jinx-breakers go, last year’s 28-19 win at Mile High Stadium was quite remarkable.
It was freely compared to perhaps the greatest jinx-breaker of them all, the 1985 AFC Championship Game that sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XX. The Patriots won in Miami for the first time since 1966, a run of 19 years at that time. The 31-14 win, coupled with the 34-27 division-clincher the following year, were the last two games the Patriots played at the old Orange Bowl. Both were wins, and both were the two biggest games the Patriots played at that old facility.
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Broncos by 7 1/2
Last year, the Patriots won for the first time in Denver since 1968. Like Miami, it was the last appearance for the Patriots at Mile High Stadium. But unlike Miami, the game lacked that much importance.
Well, that Denver game last year could have been more important than it turned out to be. The 0-4 Patriots, off to a sputtering start under new head coach Bill Belichick, avenged four weeks of close, tough losses and got the new coach his first win. Of all places to get Belichick his first win, it happens to be the toughest venue of them all. The win figured to send the Patriots off on a comeback trail that would render the 0-4 start a mere footnote.
But you all know what happened. After a 24-16 win over the Colts at home the following week, another demoralizing loss to the Jets sent the Patriots off on a 3-7 finish. The big win in Denver became the mere footnote after that Jet loss.
The Patriots return once again to Denver, against a team the schedule maker thinks is really in the AFC East. 2001 marks the seventh straight year these two teams have met in the regular season. The Patriots went 0-for-John Elway, but have won their last two straight against the Broncos (the Patriots won at Foxborough in 1999, 24-23 despite being whittled down to one healthy linebacker by game’s end).
In beating the Broncos two straight, the Patriots have had the luxury of not having to face Elway. Elway was to the Patriots what Belichick is to Peyton Manning and Doug Flutie. He simply had the Patriots’ number. The Patriots had no answer for him.
But there is another common denominator in these two wins against Denver.
In both wins, the Patriots also did not have to deal with Terrell Davis. The star Bronco running back has run up against the serious injury bug the last few years, and had knee surgery once again this year.
The injury report on Davis read “out 4-6 weeks” dating back to late September. Today, the report read “questionable”. If the Patriots aren’t saying “Uh-oh!” to themselves, they’d better start.
Given their poor penchant at stopping marquee running backs (Curtis Martin, Corey Dillon, Edgerrin James, Lamar Smith, to name a few), an active Davis presents major problems for the Patriots. Brian Griese may not have the mobility of Elway, and is without one of his prime receivers, Ed McCaffrey. But having Davis in the lineup will allow Griese to open up his passing attack, as New England will be forced to line up and respect the run.
Olandis Gary was the projected starter for Denver on Sunday. The Broncos have three rushers who can lay a 100-spot on you with ease — Gary, Davis and Mike Anderson. The Patriots have faced all three men. Davis still is the most problematic for the Patriots.
The record shows that Elway won a lot of his games with other running backs over the years not named Terrell. It may be that, given the lack of necessity the Patriots will have to contain a scrambling quarterback with a howitzer for an arm, the Patriots will be able to concentrate more on stopping Davis without leaving themselves vulnerable to Rod Smith.
Of course, there’s always the chance the Patriots could do it like they did last week in Indianapolis. Attack the weak Bronco secondary, and let Davis get his 140 or so yards so long as he stays out of the end zone.
Tom Brady will see a more fierce pass rush this week versus last week. The front seven of Denver will pretty much shut down any chance of a running attack the Patriots might have wanted to establish. In Leon Lett, John Mobley and Bill Romanowski, the Patriots have to deal with three top-tier pass rushers. And that’s not even counting the huge tackles, Chester McGlockton and Trevor Pryce. The only real hope the Patriots have offensively is that Brady has some time to find Troy Brown and David Patten on medium to deep routes.
Romanowski gave the Patriots some locker room fodder this week, which might help Sunday. He labeled the Patriot trick plays last week against the Colts as “a sign of weakness”. It’s not clear to anyone except Romanowski himself why he said it or what he bases that theory on. Whatever the case, Belichick will likely use it to fire his gang up.
The game will be played at brand new Invesco Field. The Patriots can look at this new crib and think about CMGi Field in the process. Invesco Field is adjacent to the old Mile High Stadium, just like CMGi is adjacent to Foxborough Stadium. All last year, you could see the new field going up, just like back home. It may not help them to win the game, but it might provide some inspiration.
For now, the Patriots have to step up and hope Brady can do it again, and that Davis’ injury report is ambitious. If Davis does not play, the Patriots have a real chance to win this game.
At least Elway should stay retired.
And Shannon Sharpe will not be making any 911 calls if Denver is winning in a blowout.
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