With a win over the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the New England Patriots passed a tough test on their road to the playoffs. They face another tough test on Sunday afternoon against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.
With only three games remaining, the two teams are on opposite ends of the playoff spectrum. On one end, the Patriots sit in first place in the AFC and have a good chance of locking up home field advantage. On the other end are the Broncos, who at 8-5 find themselves in the final wild card spot and on the verge of falling out of the playoffs altogether.
It should be an exciting, hard-fought game this weekend that will no doubt factor into the playoff picture in the AFC. If the Patriots want to exercise their Denver demons and solidify their lead in the AFC, here are the keys to victory.
New England Patriots Week 15 Keys to Victory
Neutralize Denver’s Pass Rush
This is arguably the biggest key to the game. In two games against Denver last season, the Patriots offensive line allowed seven sacks and several more quarterback hits. The Broncos have retained their defensive presence at the line of scrimmage this year, ranking second in the NFL with 38 sacks. This will be put to the test against a new and improved Patriots offensive line from last season. So far this year, the Patriots offensive line has only allowed 21 sacks.
How well New England can handle Von Miller and the rest of the Broncos pass rush will set the tone for the game. Tom Brady will have to hand it off to LeGarrette Blount early in the game and in key situations in order to keep Denver’s pass rushers honest. If Blount is able to have meaningful runs (at the goal line, on first downs, etc) then Brady will have a slightly easier time dissecting the Broncos secondary. It will be no easy task though, as the Broncos return one out of every four interceptions for a touchdown and rank fourth in the NFL in pass deflections.
Use Multiple Running Backs
If there is one thing the Patriots have done well this season, it is exactly this. With Blount, a multi-talented Dion Lewis, and an improved James White, the Patriots offense has been able to take advantage of personnel mismatches all season long. In addition; over the last two weeks, the Broncos have struggled mightily against teams that have successfully utilized more than one running back.
So far this season, Blount has rushed for 14 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards. Most of those yards were in short yardage and goal line situations. Combine that with the abilities of both White and Lewis to catch passes out of the backfield, and New England’s running backs are poised to do some damage this week. If all three backs are able to put up their usual numbers, the Patriots should be able to do enough to win the game.
Improve on Special Teams
Although very rare, the Patriots made some critical special teams mistakes last week against Baltimore. With a comfortable 20 point lead, rookie Cyrus Jones misplayed a punt and it resulted in a Ravens possession from inside the Patriots 10-yard line. Not even two minutes later, the usually reliable Matthew Slater fumbled a kickoff at the 22-yard line that Baltimore recovered. Two minutes, two mistakes, 14 points on the board.
Heading into a match up with the Broncos, poor special teams play doesn’t sit right with Patriots fans. In case you forgot, New England let a lead slip away via poor special teams play and eventually lost in overtime to Denver just over a year ago. The muffed punt by Chris Harper was one of a few plays down the stretch that cost the Patriots home field advantage in the playoffs. If New England wants to avoid a repeat performance from a year ago (and last week) then they need somebody catching punts and kicks with confidence.
For the better part of the past 15 seasons, Tom Brady has found ways to succeed against pretty much every team in the NFL… besides the Broncos, that is.
Tom Brady can boast at least a .500 winning percentage against every team he has faced besides Denver, and yes you read that correctly. In his career, Brady is just 6-9 against the Broncos. Those numbers are even worse when Brady plays in Denver, where the Patriots are just 2-7 under Bill Belichick.
With those numbers in mind, it should be a tough game on Sunday. Denver is hungry for a chance to defend their Super Bowl title and is in “must win” mode for the rest of the year. Although the Patriots have looked good recently and played well against a surging Baltimore team, don’t be surprised if the game plan and the outcome look completely different this week.
Prediction: New England 23 – Denver 20