The Patriots are alone at the top of the AFC and travel to Denver to take on the Broncos at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. This will be the third trip to Denver for the Patriots in the last 13 months. The situation is quite like a year ago when the Patriots visited Denver at 10-0 and the Broncos were two games back.
This meeting is a bit later in the season and unlike a year ago, the Broncos are a team desperate for a win. At 8-5, they need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Presently they sit in the #6 seed with the tiebreaker over Miami. But tough games remain against the Chiefs and Raiders so they’ll need to seal the deal at home.
The Broncos have the #1 pass defense in the league and will be looking to use their vaunted pass rush against Tom Brady and slow down the Patriots passing game. Their edge rushers Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray are productive and had big games against Brady twice last year.
The Patriots are 11-2 and the offense didn’t seem to miss Rob Gronkowski when they faced the #1 defense in the league last Monday night. Against the Ravens, the Patriots rolled up 496 yards of offense and 30 points. They’re hoping to carry that over against the team that beat them twice in 2015.
Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:
QB Tom Brady: Brady has pretty much had his way most every team in the NFL, and that includes Denver. But not on the road, Brady is just 2-7 against the Broncos in Mile High. This has been a rivalry dominated by the home teams. In the last ten games between the two, the home team has won 9 of 10.
Brady is sure to know this and will surely be thinking about the heartbreaking loss last year in the AFC Championship Game where a two-point conversion with just 12 seconds left failed, which would have sent the game into overtime.
But the future Hall of Famer knows what’s at stake this week. With a win, the Pats clinch a first round bye and deal Denver a serious blow to their playoff hopes. A win on Sunday won’t erase a lot of bad memories in Denver, but it will go a long way in doing so.
Running Back James White: With much of the focus this week and justifiably so on LeGarrette Blount, it may be White who holds the key to attacking Denver’s defense. The Broncos haven’t been good against the run this season and Blount and Dion Lewis will bear most of the heavy lifting there. But in the passing game is where White may open things up for Brady thru the air.
Denver will be minus Brandon Marshall on Sunday, and fellow inside linebacker Todd Davis is hurting too. The Patriots will look to spread out the Broncos defense on passing downs and find mismatches by isolating White and Lewis on the linebackers. With the backs keeping the Denver defense honest, they’ll have to respect the run this time around and won’t be able to just pin their ears back and rush the QB.
Look for White to move in motion and be split out wide at times, giving Brady a look at how the Broncos coverage will be set up. If they’re forced to start using a safety on him, it will open single coverage for one of their wide receivers.
Safety Devin McCourty: The Patriots defense has been much better the past month especially in the passing game and this week the secondary will be facing a pair of very prolific receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The Denver passing game hasn’t been as vertical as we’ve seen in years past but it is still a very viable one with those two receivers. And the Pats final line of defense is McCourty.
Against the Ravens last week, he picked off a deep Joe Flacco pass to Mike Wallace and the Patriots would love to see more of that this week. But with each of the receivers’ ability to go deep, McCourty will ultimately see time against both.
The Patriots game plan every week is to take away the big, chunk plays and make the opponent slowly make their way down the field. Against a young QB like Trevor Siemian who has struggled lately, this strategy will be even more important. McCourty will have a big say in how effective their strategy will be with his performance this week.
Right Tackle Marcus Cannon: The Patriots right tackle is having a career best season in 2016, but he too can recall the nightmare of the AFC Championship Game in January. Von Miller had 2.5 sacks and rode roughshod over not just Cannon but anyone who was in front of him that day. Cannon would love to turn the tables on him this season and not only setting the outside edge but opening holes in the running game as well.
Denver is second in the NFL in sacks with 38, one behind Carolina but is the most efficient pass rush team. One way to slow down Miller, Ware, and Co.? Running the football. And Cannon has been very good at opening holes from Blount to run through this season.
Cannon was just rewarded with a nice contract extension for the Patriots. Here’s an opportunity to show he’s earned it by keeping Brady upright this time and paving the way for a Patriots ground attack that should be much more effective than the last two times they faced this defense. This will be Cannon’s biggest test of the year…so far.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy: The Patriots made a trade for the misused former 2nd round pick from the Detroit Lions this fall and he’s been rewarding them with some stellar play recently. After the trade of Jamie Collins to Cleveland, the team was searching for a replacement of his production and they found it with a combination of Van Noy and Shea McClellin.
As he’s found a comfort level in the defense, Van Noy’s production has increased. He can do a bit of everything. While McClellin is generally on the field for running downs, Van Noy has taken over in coverage and for the most part has been very good. He’s also adept at rushing the passer and can bring a lot to the table.
Facing a Denver team that has struggled to run the football in 2016, Van Noy should see plenty of snaps against the Broncos on Sunday afternoon. He should see some coverage on TEs Virgil Green and A.J. Derby and it wouldn’t be surprising if he blitzes a few times up the A-gap as they mix things up with their pass rush against Siemian.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.
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