NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (6-2) AT DENVER BRONCOS (3-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Sports Authority Field. TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (field reporter).
SERIES HISTORY: 48th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 26-21. With a history that dates back to the AFL, Denver has had a lot of success against New England, especially in the Mile High City. Since 2001, the Patriots are just 3-7 in Denver including a pair of postseason losses. The Broncos actually have a 9-8 advantage overall since 2001, including a 3-1 mark in the playoffs. Tom Brady did lead the Patriots to a 16-3 win in Denver last December, ending a two-game losing streak to the Broncos that included a 20-18 loss in the 2015 AFC title game in which Brady took a beating from a dominant Denver defense that was on its way to a Super Bowl title to close out Peyton Manning's career.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots' offense is often at its best when it gets things going with a quick, timely passing attack early in games. That was the game plan to deal with San Diego's impressive pass rush before the bye and will likely be the case against Von Miller and the Broncos.
Tom Brady will probably utilize his running backs on short throws as well as TE Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field to go at a Broncos pass defense that includes an impressive trio of cornerbacks in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby. The offense will be balanced out by complementary runs; Dion Lewis has taken over the lead role in recent weeks. The New England offensive line must give Brady and the backs room to work; right tackle LaAdrian Waddle will likely get the fill-in start.
Defensively, the Patriots were certainly trending in the right direction in points allowed leading into the bye. There is a chance that continues against a Brock Osweiler-led Broncos attack that has had its issues. Denver has turned the ball over 19 times in eight games, so New England will certainly be looking to swing the game on big plays.
The likely return of CB Stephon Gilmore leaves the option of having the bigger veteran match up with Demaryius Thomas while CB Malcolm Butler could get the man-up call to deal with Emmanuel Sanders. But New England is likely to mix its coverages, meaning communication will be a focal point for a team that has struggled in that area.
The Broncos have a path to victory, but it is a narrow one and it starts by eliminating the mistakes that have paralyzed them during their four-game losing streak. Denver has lost the turnover battle in all five losses this year and hasn't gone a game without a giveaway since Week 4. Any hopes of a win start with not giving the Patriots any freebies as they did last December, when an early muffed punt return effectively nullified a three-and-out forced by the defense, leading to a field goal that put New England up for good.
On defense, Denver must find a way to pressure Brady without sacrificing coverage, an equation that worked in wins during the 2015 regular season and postseason but was moot last year as the Broncos couldn't stop the run in a 16-3 loss.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--QB Tom Brady vs. Broncos LBs Von Miller and Brandon Marshall. When the Patriots face an imposing pass rush, like Miller brings to this battle, Brady often responds with plenty of throws to James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. That was the case in the pre-bye win over the Chargers, when the trio tallied 14 receptions. Brady could take that approach once again, testing Miller, Marshall and Co.
--Broncos QB Brock Osweiler vs. Patriots DC Matt Patricia. The Patriots' defense was on the come leading into the bye, dramatically improving in points allowed. But there are still plenty of doubts about the pass defense as the unit deals with Osweiler and the bumbling Broncos passing attack. Osweiler beat the Patriots in Denver in overtime in 2015, and it will be up to Patricia's scheming and personnel groupings to ensure that doesn't happen again against a New England defense that still has plenty to prove.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
--Out: DT Malcom Brown (ankle), T Marcus Cannon (ankle), WR Chris Hogan (shoulder)
--Questionable: WR Danny Amendola (knee), TE Martellus Bennett (shoulder), CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion, ankle), DE Cassius Marsh (shoulder), CB Eric Rowe (groin)
--Questionable: LB Todd Davis (ankle), WR Emmanuel Sanders (ankle), T Donald Stephenson (calf)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots WR Danny Amendola. New England's veteran receiver has dealt with a knee injury on and off all season. He had season lows of two catches and 14 yards in the pre-bye win over the Chargers. But with fellow WR Chris Hogan dealing with a shoulder injury and the Patriots likely to use a quick passing attack in Denver, Tom Brady could lean on Amendola to have a bigger role against the NFL's No. 4 pass defense.
FAST FACTS: Patriots QB Tom Brady has 1,007 passing yards (335.7 per game) and six TD passes in his past three road games. He has eight TD passes and no interceptions in his past five games in Denver. ... RB James White leads New England and ranks second among NFL RBs with 43 catches. He led the team with 85 receiving yards in Week 8. ... In his past two road games, TE Rob Gronkowski has 199 receiving yards and three TDs. He has five TD catches in his past five road contests. In seven games vs. Denver, he has 660 yards (94.3 per game) and seven TDs. ... LB Kyle Van Noy has 2.5 sacks in his past two road games. ... DE Trey Flowers had two sacks in his only career game vs. Denver. ... In past four home starts with Denver, QB Brock Osweiler has completed 99 of 154 (64.3 percent) for 1,109 yards (277.3 per game). ... RB C.J. Anderson had 153 scrimmage yards (113 rushing) and two rushing TDs in his last game vs. NE (2015). ... In nine meetings (including playoffs), WR Demaryius Thomas has 830 receiving yards (92.2 per game). Since 2012, he ranks second among NFL receivers with 535 catches and 7,395 yards. ... LB Von Miller has four sacks in his past three home games. In the past six meetings, he has 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception.
PREDICTION: The Broncos just got blown up for 51 points by the Eagles last week, and now Tom Brady comes to town.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 34-20.