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Three Keys: Broncos at Patriots

Posted Nov 24, 2013

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at three keys to the Sunday night matchup.

BOSTON -- It has been seven years since the Broncos won in Foxborough. When that happened in a 17-7 win over the Patriots, the Broncos were soaring; they had won 16 of their previous 20 regular-season games, and were in the midst of their best stretch of the decade, a 20-4 sprint that spanned parts of three seasons.

Winning at Foxborough used to be a semi-routine exercise. Denver played four games here from 1996-2006 and won three. But that changed in the following years; the next two losses were by a combined 86-17 score.

None of their trips since 2006, including a playoff game in January 2012, have carried the same building high tide of momentum -- not until this one. And it all began with the 31-21 loss here last October.

That is one of four regular-season losses the Broncos have endured since Peyton Manning's arrival last year. But the October 2012 defeat to the Patriots was the only one in which the Broncos were outpaced.

There appears to be little chance of that happening now. Not with an offseason spent installing an offense that could dial up a pace like the Patriots did that day last year -- and a defense that was forced to practice against it and adjust.

“I know we were interested in it and we were kind of curious what they were doing," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "It really didn’t get brought up until way later in the year. We were still kind of figuring who we were at that time.

"But it had a little bit of influence on us as far as, ‘Hey, there is a way for us to play faster than what we were playing,'" Gase later added.

1. PROTECT PEYTON.

Much hullabaloo last week centered around the Chiefs' pass rush, but New England's has been the league's most effective in the last month, thanks primarily to the emergence of Chandler Jones as an effective edge rusher from his right defensive end spot. Jones is particularly effective at getting outside and behind the tackle and then accelerating back to the quarterback. It's an effective move, but takes about three seconds to develop, which then puts the onus back on Manning and his receivers to execute their connections quickly before the edge rush of Jones has an impact.

2. CHALLENGE NEW ENGLAND'S SECONDARY.

Cornerback Aqib Talib is questionable after being limited all week with a hip injury, and is coming off his worst game of the season. Fellow cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard are also questionable with groin and knee injuries, respectively, and safety Steve Gregory is questionable with a finger injury. 

All might end up playing, given Bill Belichick's historic affinity for the "questionable" tag. But if they are forced to play a bit more conservatively to adapt for their injuries, the Broncos might have the chance for another defense-stretching deep go route to Demaryius Thomas, or for some quick slants and outs.

3. TRY TO KEEP THEM GUESSING.

Tom Brady is Peyton Manning's equal in regards to reading a defense's intentions prior to the snap, which is a significant reason why both are destined for Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement. But the Broncos' improved defense the last three games could offer more chances for disguised coverages and formations that deceive, especially since the Broncos are capable of winning every one-on-one matchup at the line of scrimmage. 

If Von Miller can return to the form he showed in the Washington and San Diego games, then the Broncos can be even more flexible. An early Miller sack or hit of Brady might force the Patriots to keep an extra blocker in. This could be necessary whether he lurks on the edge or lines up behind the defensive tackles to attack the Patriots at a weaker point in their line -- while also adding the potential for quicker disruption of Brady's quick-timing, rhythm passing game. If that happens, then the Broncos could throw a change-up by dropping Miller back when the Patriots expect a pass rush, creating a coverage mismatch in the Broncos' favor.

AND DON'T FORGET … THE WEATHER:

Yes, the Broncos' practice in snowy, chilly conditions on Thursday helps. But the winds that will likely impact every pass thrown by both sides began gusting Saturday night, and will rarely let up through Sunday's game. If the winds are on the high end of the 20-to-35 MPH forecast, then Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball could play more significant roles than expected.