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Three Keys to Broncos-Patriots

DENVER --The elegant Friday night snowfall that descended upon Sports Authority Field at Mile High served as a reminder of the time of year and the on-field stakes that come with it.

Winter is here, if not on the calendar, then certainly on the thermometer. Winter's arrival means the fate of a season is at stake.

Win or lose, Sunday's game against the New England Patriots will spur neither a victory march nor a death knell. But a defeat would put the Broncos' hopes of a sixth consecutive playoff appearance at least partially out of their hands; they would need at least one loss by Miami and Baltimore.

But a win Sunday would, at the least, guarantee the Broncos of a tiebreaker win over Miami if the two end the season deadlocked with no other teams sharing the same record.

That's the discussion matter for pundits, fans, broadcasters and others who opine about all things Broncos and NFL. Head Coach Gary Kubiak's focus is on something different entirely. He's not looking at scenarios; he's looking to try and fix the issues that have led the Broncos to a 4-5 record since their 4-0 start.

"My concern with players, I try to stay focused on the moment," he said Monday. "I try to stay focused on how we're playing. If the season ended [after Week 13], we're a playoff team. "My concern right now is how we're playing. We have to play more consistent as a football team."

And without being consistent, the Broncos won't beat New England, which he called "the best team in football."

"The real challenge for us right now is to play better," Kubiak said.

And that starts with ... well, the start itself.

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  1. AVOID THE SLOW START**

No team has scored more points in the fourth quarter this season than the Broncos, whose 143-point tally helped build a plus-88 fourth-quarter margin that is also the league's best.

But no team has scored fewer first-quarter points than the Broncos, with 23 -- less than one-fourth of the Patriots' league-leading 103-point tally in the first 15 minutes of games.

New England has flourished playing from ahead -- in fact, their quick starts have allowed them to play with a lead for 549 minutes, 55 seconds -- or 70.5 percent of the time. Denver, by comparison, has led just 36.7 percent of its minutes on the field.

2. DISRUPT THE TIMING OF NEW ENGLAND'S PASSING GAME

It worked last January, when the Broncos hit Tom Brady 17 times, including four for sacks. Downfield coverage forced him to hold the football longer than he was accustomed, and forced him to move in the pocket more than he would prefer.

In the last three seasons, pressure has been the one consistent factor that can disrupt the Patriots' offense. When Patriots quarterbacks are sacked no more than once, New England is 21-1 since the start of 2014. When sacked twice, they're 12-3. But when opponents get to Brady -- or any Pats quarterback -- three times or more, they're 7-6, including the Broncos' win in last January's AFC Championship.

3. EXECUTION ON OFFENSE

Last week's early offensive struggles might have been avoided if the offense had built some momentum, which in turn could have been created if you don't have a missed block in pass protection, or an inaccurate pass, or a crease that isn't hit.

"I'm sitting there watching nine plays offensively," Kubiak said Monday. "We missed a pass-protection. We had a couple busts. We put the ball on the ground. When you're doing that, you're not going to be successful.

"It's not about the plays, it's about execution. It's about detail. Then you have to ask yourself, 'Why?' Why is the detail not there early in the game? That's what we're trying to figure out."

The Broncos got one final walkthrough in on Saturday before they host the Patriots on Sunday. (Photos by Ben Hunt)

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