PLENTY OF FAMILIARITY
Outside of the Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders, there may not be a team the Broncos have become better acquainted with in recent years than the Patriots.
"We've played these guys so much it's like a division opponent really," Jack Del Rio said Thursday. "We've played them quite a bit. I think they're pretty familiar with us as well."
The Broncos were hard at work on Thursday preparing for Sunday's road game against the Patriots.
Del Rio wasn't with the Broncos in 2011 -- when the Broncos hosted the Patriots in Week 15 and traveled to Foxborough for a divisional playoff game in January -- but he has been a part of the teams' three matchups in the last two seasons, including once as interim head coach. Meanwhile, Adam Gase is only in his second season at the helm of the Broncos' offense, but as the QB coach in 2011 and 2012, he has been a part of all five games between the Broncos and Patriots since 2011.
The sixth matchup in less than three calendar years will be Sunday, a game the Broncos know requires precise planning.
"Your preparation -- you better be on it," Gase said. "If you're not, they'll embarrass you. They'll figure you out so you better make sure you're on what you do."
As Chris Harris Jr. mentioned Monday, the Patriots are willing to "change up their whole gameplan" from week to week or year to year against the same opponent, making it important to "be ready for everything." That unpredictability helped Bill Belichick's squad get back into last November's game in Foxborough, when the Patriots overcame a big halftime deficit to win in overtime. But with so many recent games played against New England, it seems like they might be running out of surprises to throw the Broncos' way.
"We just have to make sure we're on point as far as, when we're out there we have to win our one-on-one battles," Gase said. "It's not going to be easy and it's going to be a great matchup."
Even though the Patriots have proven difficult to beat for the Broncos recently, Del Rio isn't getting sick of playing them.
"No, it's a great matchup," he said. "Two of the better teams in the league. We've earned this because we've ended up in first place. It's a first-place schedule that we both play. So two good teams that are going at it. We look forward to the challenge."
LOOKING BACK AT HIS WISH LIST
It's probably been many years since Del Rio wrote a letter to Santa Claus, but this past free agency, it sounds like he might have written one to Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway.
"I just put up a wish list and John Elway went and filled it," Del Rio said with a smile. "I didn't want to get greedy. Although I probably was anyway."
The team's defensive coordinator is of course talking about the trio of big names that were signed in March to bolster the Broncos' defense: DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. The acquisitions have certainly lived up to their billing thus far, making Del Rio's offseason hopes and Elway's subsequent execution look brilliant.
"I say that a little bit in jest," Del Rio said of calling it a wish list. "I mean the reality is we approach it – they give us a list of guys to look at and rank and put our two cents in and they're going to execute the plan as best they can. So it just worked out that it was a nice job by the front office of acquiring the talent that we needed."
Even with the impact those new players have brought, Del Rio pointed out that the team's defensive surge this year has been helped by many other factors, most notably the return of several starters who were on injured reserve last year. Von Miller's blistering start to 2014 has perhaps been most noteworthy, but Chris Harris Jr. has also made a very strong return from his own ACL tear, while Derek Wolfe and Rahim Moore are each back at full strength and making their own plays.
"I'm just as excited about the guys that are back from injury," Del Rio said. "We've got a lot of guys that at the end of last year weren't playing. And they're playing now. So we welcome all of the healthy bodies that can help us win on Sunday."
MOMENTUM-SHIFTING PLAYS AND KEY MOMENTS
When asked in the offseason how the team could improve on a record-setting offensive performance in 2013, Gase highlighted a few specific areas to focus on: reducing turnovers and improving in the red zone (specifically goal-to-go situations).
In a game that always seems to come down to a slim margin, those points of emphasis are again at the top of the Broncos' priorities this weekend, especially because they often haven't gone Denver's way in recent meetings with the Patriots.
As Head Coach John Fox noted Wednesday, the Patriots lead the NFL in turnover ratio at 11 through eight weeks, and in the teams' last four regular season meetings, the Broncos have come out at minus-7.
"They do a great job of it," Gase said. "If the ball's on the ground, they're going to get it and they do a good job of being in tight coverage forcing interceptions in that area as well so for us we just have to make sure we hold onto the ball."
"It cost us last year big time," he added, speaking of the Week 12 game in Foxborough last year. "...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. It helped them get back in the game."
"That drive we fumbled, we have to go down the field and score and that would have put an end to that right there but we turned the ball over and they get back in the game and all of a sudden we're in overtime."
Several weeks later in the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos didn't turn the ball over at all, but struggled some in the red zone, converting two touchdowns and four field goals on six attempts. Leaving points on the field -- very uncharacteristic of a team that led the league with a 76 percent TD percentage in the regular season -- helped keep the Patriots within range in the fourth quarter despite the Broncos statistically dominating the game to that point.
"We had a couple of big plays in that playoff game and our defense played really well, it just felt like we didn't do very good in the red area and they did a good job stopping (us)," Gase said. "They did a great job in that aspect of holding us to field goals instead of touchdowns."
With a slew of talented players working in tight spaces near the goal line, how the Broncos perform Sunday will depend primarily on execution. "You've got guys like [Darrelle] Revis and [Brandon] Browner and the rest of that crew and then D.T. [Demaryius Thomas], Emmanuel [Sanders], [Wes] Welker, Julius [Thomas], all these guys," Gase said. "Something's got to give at some point."