PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Once again, a north wind will barrel through the open corner of Gillette Stadium, providing a blustery welcome to the New England Patriots' home field.
And once again, the Broncos might have to adapt -- just like the offense did last November, when the conditions and the defensive alignments used by the Patriots forced the Broncos to run on 55.8 percent of their snaps -- the highest percentage in the last two seasons.
"I don't know if I can call more runs than that; that was a lot," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "It hurt my soul a little bit but a lot of it could be dictated by weather.
"We'll just see what it is on (Sunday). It seems like everything keeps changing from day-to-day. When we get up there we'll have plans ready to go as far as what we can do. If the weather changes that, we'll make adjustments before the game."
The recent success of the ground game better equips the offense to change from its usual tactics. During the November 2013 game, Denver averaged more yards per carry (5.83) than all but one game since Manning's arrival. So it can work.
All that is why the Broncos know that weather will not stand as an excuse if anything goes awry Sunday. If anything, it could be an opportunity to again prove that this year's team is different than the last. The best play is to embrace it and adapt to it.
"I like those games where it's just you against the world on the road in tough conditions," said tight end Jacob Tamme. "There's something really neat about that to me."
And they don't get much tougher than this, given the forecast and the quality of the opponent. Let's get to the Three Keys:
1. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL.
The impact of turnovers -- and fumbles in particular -- is obvious in the three games played by the teams since Peyton Manning joined the Broncos. In the two losses, the Broncos turned over the football seven times, six via fumbles. In the AFC Championship Game win last January, they had a clean sheet: no interceptions and no fumbles.
Denver fumbled eight times in the 2012 and 2013 defeats at Gillette Stadium, losing six. None was more calamitous than the botched punt return that bounced off Tony Carter in overtime last November, setting up the game-winning field goal, but giveaways in the second half helped the Patriots rally from a 24-point deficit.
"We were feeling pretty good about ourselves. We were trying to be aggressive and do what we were having success with, we laid the ball on the ground one time and threw an interception," said Gase. "It helped them get back in the game."
New England ranks third in the league in takeaways and second in fumble recoveries, so its turnover touch remains effective. Maintaining possession will be a top priority.
2. DON'T LET TOM BRADY GET INTO A RHYTHM.
When the Broncos and Patriots met in 2012, New England's up-tempo offense ran 89 plays, the most against the Broncos since 1984, and the second-most for a game that did not go to overtime. If the Broncos overplayed the pass, the Patriots ran; if they sacrificed coverage to stop the run, New England threw.
"It's third down. You've got to get off the field on Tom (Brady)," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "Once they get first downs, it's hurry-up, hurry-up, hurry-up. You've got to get them off the field so you can slow them down."
Defusing the Patriots will require containing tight end Rob Gronkowski, while not ignoring the outside and underneath targets that can be effective, particularly Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, a free-agent acquisition this offseason whose output improved with the entire New England offense in October.
Some of the pressure will be on linebacker Brandon Marshall, who wears the helmet equipped with a radio receiver. It will be his responsibility to set the defense and relay Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio's calls -- when he has time.
"It will be something new for Brandon (Marshall), because he's going to have to take control," said Harris. "A lot of times we have to hurry up, we can't wait for Jack."
3. KEEP THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE HONEST.
The afore-mentioned conditions could determine the degree to which the Broncos succeed at this, and whether they can establish effective balance to keep the Patriots off-guard and limit their opportunities for aggression.
It's not just a matter of run-pass balance, but in spreading the football around, finding the gaps that exist underneath and exploiting them when possible.