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Three Keys to Broncos-Patriots


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **You know the names: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski. You know what they've accomplished together, including last year's Super Bowl LI win and a current 11-game road winning streak.

Of course, the Patriots' last road loss was in Denver -- in the 2015 AFC Championship Game. And in Brady and Belichick's time together, the Patriots are 3-7 in Denver, including three postseason games.

Given that playoff games against New England at home have brought out the Broncos' best, perhaps it's a positive that some players have taken the approach that this week's showdown has similar weight, given that the Broncos have shrunk their margin for error in the rest of the season because of a four-game losing streak.

"This is a playoff game," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "We know we've got to win. There's a lot at stake with the way the Chiefs are playing and everybody else in our division is playing."

And the challenge of containing the Patriots starts with neutralizing the Brady-to-Gronkowski connection. In a script that has repeated itself over the last four weeks, another Broncos opponent brings at least one game-breaking tight end to the equation. But Gronkowski is the current standard-bearer at his position.

"You see Gronkowski, he's a man," Ray said. "Him and [Kansas City's] Travis Kelce are the top two tight ends in the league."

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had to go one-on-one against Gronkowski late in the 2015 AFC Championship game after injuries decimated the Broncos' safety corps.

"[There] is really nothing you can do," Harris said. "You can just try to slow him down and try not to let him get going full speed. Other than that, there is nothing you can do to stop that man when he's rolling."

That means a defense must find ways to prevent him from getting rolling in the first place.

"The biggest thing with Gronk, you don't want to get him moving down the field," Ray said. "You don't want to allow him to have free releases and run down the field on your safeties and linebackers. There's always an emphasis on that guy. When we play him, it's always get hands on him, know where he's at. It's the same game plan -- attack the tight ends, try to take away Tom's favorite weapon and play it from there."

But the Patriots' array of targets is far more than just their tight end, which is where this week's Three Keys begins:


  1. Don't over-focus on one target**

One of the reasons why the Patriots' offense leads the league in net yards and first downs per possession is that New England is the only team in the league that has seven players with at least 300 yards from scrimmage. No other team has more than five players from among their running backs, wide receivers and tight ends with 300 yards from scrimmage, and the league average is 3.8.

Brady's willingness to trust any target in any situation prevents teams from focusing too much on Gronkowski; he will take the matchup with running backs James White or Dion Lewis or wide receivers Brandin Cooks or Chris Hogan (although Hogan has already been ruled out for Sunday because of a shoulder injury). The addition of Martellus Bennett gives Brady another option if the veteran tight end is healthy enough to play; he was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.

"The issue lies in that you can't double one guy every play," Head Coach Vance Joseph said. "From time to time you have to have your guys cover one-on-one. If it's first-and-10, no one's going to be in a defense where you're doubling a tight end. That makes no sense because you have the run game to account for.

"From time to time our backers and our safeties have to cover the backs and tight ends one-on-one. That's just part of it and we have to win there. Third downs, especially downs there where the ball should go to that guy, we have a plan to defend those guys with coverage and with leverage. But if it's first-and-10, how do you do that without someone covering someone one-on-one?"


  1. Control the tempo with the ground game**

New England's defense has allowed at least 4.5 yards per carry in six of eight games so far this season, and it has been gashed for 120 or more rushing yards five times. Meanwhile, the Broncos are 3-1 this season when rushing for at least 120 yards.

The key statistic for Denver is rushing first downs; the offense has accounted for 23.5 points per game when it gets seven or more first downs via the ground, and just 10.5 points per game when it fails to meet that mark.

3. Protect the football

It is not a coincidence that the Broncos' last win was also the last time that they had a positive turnover margin; in three of their last four losses, the margin was minus-3 or worse. Meanwhile, the Patriots have won 81 of their last 82 games in which they had a turnover margin of plus-2 or better; they had a streak of 81 in a row that was snapped in their 33-30 loss to Carolina on Oct. 1.

"Ball security is job security," Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler said before the Eagles game. But it's more than that: It gives the team a fighting chance against the defending champions.

These five individual matchups could go a long way in deciding who comes out on top on Sunday between the Broncos and Patriots.

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