ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –The Broncos are coming off a 37-point outing against the Oakland Raiders, their best offensive showing of the year.
With the upcoming trip to New England, which put up 52 points in Week 4 against Buffalo, the Broncos offense couldn't have picked a better time to hit its stride. A year ago, Denver gave up a total of 86 points in a pair of one-sided losses to New England. So the Broncos are well aware of what they'll have to do for a chance to leave Gillette Stadium victorious.
"With a team like New England, you have to put points up," running back Willis McGahee said. "(Patriots Head Coach Bill) Belichick will have those guys ready to play and you know (Patriots quarterback Tom) Brady will have those guys ready to play. You don't want to put the ball into Tom Brady's hands a lot."
Though the result of last year's games will have no bearing on what happens this Sunday, what happened in Week 15 and again in the AFC Divisional Round has not been forgotten. In the 2011 playoffs, Denver took on New England still riding high from a last-second Wild Card victory over Pittsburgh, but fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter against the Patriots and trailed 35-7 at halftime.
"They outplayed us last year," said McGahee, who ran for 76 yards and a touchdown in the loss. "At the end of the day, they outplayed us. They played better than us. They wanted it more. It was just the end of that story, but hopefully it's a different era this weekend. It comes down to simple things – who wants it more."
McGahee believes the team travelling to New England this weekend is a different group than the one from a year ago. For one thing, the players have been able to learn from last year's experience.
"From last year and this year, we were a lot younger than we are now," McGahee said. "I think the guys know what it takes and we know what we have to do going into Foxborough. I think our work ethic has changed from last year."
This year's team also features a number of veteran free agents that were added during the offseason. The Broncos signed a pair of experienced tight ends in Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme on offense, and picked up a pair of starters in the secondary in safety Mike Adams and cornerback Tracy Porter. But more than anyone, it was the well-documented acquisition of quarterback Peyton Manning that has made Denver a better team.
"I think we're on a different level than we were last year," McGahee said. "Just as far as the players, us being together getting that mesh in with Peyton, I think we're better than last year. It's just the fact that we need to go out there and execute."
"I think our work ethic has changed from last year," McGahee continued. "Not only that, the coaches know what we can do, and they have confidence in us. We also have our El Capitan, Peyton Manning out there. He's given us an edge."
One thing that hasn't changed from 2011 has been consistent production from McGahee, who notched the 32nd 100-yard rushing performance of his career against Oakland, making him the NFL's active leader in 100-yard games. Through four games, McGahee has 325 yards and three touchdowns on 69 carries. So far, it's been an impressive follow-up to a Pro-Bowl 2011 campaign, when McGahee ran for 1,199 yards in his first season with the Broncos. Now in his 10th season in the NFL, McGahee is still playing like age isn't a factor.
"I just play the game, regardless of whatever is thrown in front me," McGahee said. "You have to be able to adapt to any situation. You have younger guys coming in every year. You have to learn how to adapt and try to keep up with them."
One factor in McGahee's success is the attention that Manning demands of opposing defenses.
"We knew he could take our offense to another level, and we could be better than we were last year as far as getting the ball down field to the receivers and even open up the running game," McGahee said of Manning. "He's not one those guys you can just load the box up and not pay him any respect. You have to respect him. Regardless of the situation, even if he didn't play last year, you're still going to respect him."
With momentum from a big win over Oakland and an improved offense from a year ago, McGahee said Sunday's trip to New England can't get here fast enough.
"I like the firepower regardless of this year or last year, but yep, this year is a little bit better," McGahee said. "Looking forward to it, can't wait. In (New York Jets linebacker) Bart Scott words, Can't wait!" McGahee laughed.