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Broncos at Patriots: Final Preview


WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL: The Denver offense talked all week about balance. It was crucial to the success it saw against Oakland and players and coaches believe it will be even more important against New England.

One reason the Broncos must have both phases - the run and the pass -- in full flux on Sunday is to keep quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offensive attack off the field.

Quarterback Peyton Manning and his unit want to establish drives and be sure to finish them when they get the opportunity, because in his experience against New England, the Patriots always find ways to score.

"What I've always known playing against offenses like the one that (Brady) leads is that you better be on your job," Manning said. "You better be prepared to score touchdowns in the red zone, convert on third down, because they're capable of scoring points. You don't want to give them short fields. So it's a challenge to our offense."

Another goal of the offense is to spread the ball around. Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman saw his most extensive action against Oakland and could be a factor in relieving Willis McGahee for a change of pace. Also against the Raiders, Manning hit seven different receivers at least twice.

"You need everybody to have touches," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "It keeps the defense off-balance, and it just helps the offense a lot more when (the defense) doesn't know where the ball is going."

But above all, priority No. 1 for the Denver offense on Sunday is ball control. New England's defense flashed its ability to force turnovers last week with six takeaways against the Buffalo Bills, putting them in the top five in the NFL with 11 on the season.

"Their defense came up with some huge plays - turnovers - and gave Tom (Brady) and their offense a short field, which that's not what you want to do," Manning said. "We have to protect the ball better. We did not protect the ball well on the road last time. We need to a better job of that than we did last time."

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL: Brady's ability at quarterback has been a constant in New England since 2001.

Something new, though, is the Patriots' ground attack. A big part of their top-ranked offense is the 144 rushing yards per game that running back Steven Ridley and company have put up.

"It's more enhanced," Bailey said of the added rushing threat to the New England offense. "They do it a little more. They run a little more, try to stay more balanced."

Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said limiting the Patriots' running game, particularly in big gains, will be "one of the keys for the game."

New England has 20 carries on the season of 10 or more yards.

"One of the things that New England has done a great job of -- they're (tied for third) in the league in running explosive runs," he said. "So that's a challenge for us coming in this weekend. We haven't given up a lot of explosive runs and it's our design not to give them up. But they're obviously doing a great job of creating those."

If the Broncos are able to stop the run, as they've accomplished through most of the first quarter of the season, Denver's pass-rushers will be able to pin their ears back and get after Brady.

"If you stop the run, then you leave them one-dimensional," rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "It puts the whole thing on Brady and the weapons they've got. If we stop the run, make them one-dimensional, then we can bring our bullets."

Another challenge that Del Rio brought up this week was containing tight end Rob Gronkowski. His 260 receiving yards rank third in the league among tight ends, complementing his three touchdowns on the year.

The tight end has battled a hip injury this week and is listed as questionable heading into the game. His participation in practice was limited on Thursday and Friday.

"He's unique in that big guys like that, that run like that, they're just rare," Del Rio said. "They obviously feature him. He's a big target for them. He's done a nice job since he's really been there and burst upon the league. He's a good football player."

The challenge of stopping the run is more on the plate for Broncos defenders, but it doesn't change the top priority.

"We know that when it's all said and done, and the game's on the line, Brady's going to be the one doing most of it," Bailey said.

The Denver defense knows that Brady will make some plays. New England hasn't been shut out since December of 2006, so the goal for the Broncos is to contain Brady by limiting their mistakes.

"You look at the past two weeks, early in the game, there's a lot of guys running free," Bailey said. "We can't make mental mistakes like that. We have to make sure our communication is up. They're going to make plays, but we can't give up big plays or let guys run free. We have to make it tough on them."

Safety Jim Leonhard, like Bailey, has several games of experience against the Patriots. He echoes Bailey's sentiment - maintain composure and limit mistakes.

"It's one of those games where you have to limit that frustration on defense, because they're going to hit some plays," Leonhard said. "They're going to get some first downs. You just have to stay locked in and make your plays when you're there."

The defense knows it's going to take one its best all-around performances to leave Foxborough, Mass., with a win.

"Tom's one of the quarterbacks in the league that can put a team on his shoulders and make plays and make it difficult for defenses," Del Rio said. "We have our hands full."

KEY TO THE GAME: Leonhard said it plainly.

"To beat Tom Brady, you have to hit him and you have to get there with four," he said. "That's easy to say but it's not very easy to do."

Sending just four linemen means the defense can drop seven back in coverage, an advantage for the secondary. But if the pass-rushers don't reach Brady quickly, they could be in danger of the three-time Super Bowl champion picking apart the coverage.

Linebacker Von Miller will often be one of the four rushing the passer. He's especially looking forward to this matchup with New England because last year, in both bouts with the Patriots, Miller had a cast on his thumb. This time around, he's fully healthy.

"It'll be great," Miller said. "My first two games I played them with a club on my hand and I felt like I had some success, but it'll be great to go out there and play with two hands now."

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