ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The Broncos know the steepness of this week's challenge as they try to climb back onto solid footing in the race for a playoff spot. But they're not running from it, either.
"You're playing a Hall of Fame quarterback and a Hall of Fame coach. It's your see-where-you're-at week," cornerback Aqib Talib. "You play the best. You've got to love to play the best, right?"
If there was one overarching tonal theme in the Broncos' locker room Wednesday, it was a desire to take this challenge head-on -- a challenge that is slightly different than what they had when they last faced the Patriots, because of changes on both sides.
- BRADY BRINGS OUT THE BRONCOS' BEST**
Last year, the arrival of Tom Brady and the Patriots brought out the best in the Broncos' defense -- particularly in the AFC Championship Game, when the Broncos sacked Brady four times, and stopped them in the red zone twice in the final seven minutes of regulation to preserve a 20-18 win.
Brady passed for 310 yards and a touchdown, but he was hit on 17 of his 60 dropbacks. He was hurried several other times, including on Von Miller's second-quarter interception to set up Peyton Manning's second touchdown pass of the game.
"He brings the best out of everybody," said CB Chris Harris Jr., whose open-field tackle on Julian Edelman on fourth-and-1 with 6:03 remaining provided one of the key turnovers on downs late.
"When you play against him, you want to play at a high, elite level versus him. You've got no choice."
It helps that the Broncos were one of the few teams with cornerbacks that could handle man-to-man coverage, allowing more resources to be allocated to the pass rush.
"We've got the coverage and the rush," Harris said. "That gives him trouble; it makes him think a little bit longer. That's what we're going to try to do again."
But the Broncos will do that with an altered defense. Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan departed in free agency, and inside linebacker Brandon Marshall did not practice once again Wednesday because of a hamstring injury incurred during the Dec. 4 win at Jacksonville, so he might be unavailable.
- KNOWING WHAT TO EXPECT -- ROUTES RUN 'TO PERFECTION'**
New England's points of emphasis change from year to year -- and even game to game. The Patriots' tactical flexibility is one of the hallmarks of their dynastic 16-season run in which they've won four Super Bowls, six AFC titles and have never had a losing season.
But there are certain elements that you come to expect -- even though few teams figure out how to stop them. The versatility of their passing targets is one of them; they'll move their backs and tight ends around, and along with their wide receivers, will use them on wheel routes, rub routes and short crosses designed to create confusion in coverage.
"Exact same. They haven't changed at all. Brady's been running the same offense for a decade -- or longer -- and running it to perfection," Harris said. "They just try to hide it. They try to trick you, try to fool you, try to run the same play, but put somebody different in that spot.
"[It's a] good thing we're very intelligent. We're a group that's faced him a lot. Everything's not as fast."
That is simply a result of experience, Harris said. As a rookie, he faced the trial-by-fire of going up against Brady and the Patriots' offense twice -- once in Week 15 of the 2011 regular season, and again four weeks later in a divisional-playoff game at frigid Gillette Stadium.
In the initial 2011 meeting, Brady only completed four passes for 37 yards at Harris' expense. But in the rematch, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker for touchdowns at Harris' expense.
"When we played him my rookie year in the league and when I was younger, everything would be fast. Your head would be spinning, like, 'What's going on?'" Harris said. "But now, we've faced him so many times, the game's slow when you play Brady."
But that's only true for veterans like Harris. And while he has proven he can play at Brady's speed, there is still plenty of adjustment to make.
"They've got so many weapons, it's like the Patriots have got five different offenses they can run," Talib said. "[Gronkowski] down, OK, they just run the next offense. They'll be all right."
"You've got to know all five of them. So it's an extra hard week to prepare," Talib said.
- SIEMIAN KNOWS OFFENSE STILL NEEDS RUN THREAT**
The offense took flight when it rode Siemian's right arm in the second halves against the Chiefs and Titans. Siemian worked the vertical game against Kansas City, the outside routes against Tennessee and racked up a 120.6 quarterback rating after halftime in the last two games.
Most importantly, Siemian guided the offense to 3.4 points and 48.8 yards per possession after halftime the last two games -- far beyond its first-half pace (0.2 points and 16.8 yards).
Siemian has 52 second-half attempts in the last two games compared with 33 in the first half -- including a pass-to-run ratio of 35 pass plays to 4 runs in the second half last Sunday.
But that isn't sustainable.
"As a quarterback, I think you want to throw it 100 times a game," Siemian said. "But I think we need to be able to do both. You've got to have balance -- especially down the stretch here when you're playing these type of teams, you've got to be able to do both.
"Selfishly, it'd be easy for me to say, 'Yeah, I want to rip it.' But you've got to be able to do both, and I think we're going to get there."
The traditional method is for the run to set up the pass. But in seven weeks since C.J. Anderson suffered a torn meniscus in his knee, the Broncos rank last in yardage per carry (2.95), last in first-down rate (moving the sticks once every 7.84 attempts) and 30th in rushing yardage per game (73.2 yards).
What the Broncos have tried hasn't worked. So could the pass be used to try to open up opportunities for the struggling run game?
"I think so," Siemian said. "In years past, I think it's been the other way around with this scheme, but we're going to do whatever it takes to win -- I think that's the bottom line."
The Broncos got back to work Wednesday at UCHealth Training Center as they prepare to host the New England Patriots. (Photos by Pete Eklund)
- ANDERSON AT THE READY**
Todd Davis' presence for at least the walk-through period of Wednesday's practice was a positive sign for a defense that could again be without Marshall. But the play of backup Zaire Anderson in place of Davis last Sunday -- particularly against the run -- also offers hope that the Broncos can withstand any further time missed by their two starting inside linebackers.
Anderson played alongside Corey Nelson, Marshall's backup, last week and displayed the same aggression and quick reaction he flashed during training-camp and preseason work that earned him a place on the 53-man roster, finishing with five total tackles.
His job is simple: stop the run -- which is crucial against the Patriots, who are seventh in the league in rushing yardage per game.
The Patriots run it well in part because they play from ahead and are in position to run it often; only four teams have run the ball on a higher percentage of their snaps than the Patriots. They have run 44 percent of the time this season -- although that percentage has dropped to 40.8 percent since Brady returned from suspension, which would drop their run frequency to 13th of 32 teams on a percentage basis.
5. A SENSE OF URGENCY
"I feel like the urgency always turns up about the middle of December," Talib said. "Other teams who aren't playing for [anything] right now, it kind of turns down. For teams who've got a chance to make the tournament, it kind of turns up."
But the only way the Broncos can guarantee themselves a postseason ticket is by winning their last three games -- and doing so against an unparalleled gauntlet. No team has ever faced three clubs that were all 10-3 or better in its final three regular-season games.
"It's called the NFL," Talib said. "You just play until you get in the tournament, play to make the tournament, play to win the [championship], but you've got to make the tournament first. That's what we're doing."
And they know they can't worry about anything beyond their control -- opponents, schedule or any other outside factors.
"Sometimes, it's hard, but as a defense, you've just got to keep going and let the chips fall the way they're going to fall," Anderson said.