New England Patriots. Denver Broncos. The intentional safety game of 2003. The Champ Bailey interception in the 2005 Divisional round game handed Tom Brady his first playoff loss.The Josh McDaniels game as Denver head coach.
The Tebow blowout in the 2011 AFC Divisional round game. Enter Peyton Manning. The comeback to the 24-0 deficit in 2013. Wes Welker’s illegal pick on Aqib Talib knocked him out of the 2013 AFC Championship game. C.J. Anderson’s overtime touchdown run against the undefeated Patriots in 2015.
The 2015 AFC Championship and the almost amazing comeback with Von Miller establishing himself as the greatest pass rusher of the decade. Just an amazing rivalry and two teams with so much respect for each other as heavyweights of the AFC.
Now there’s no Manning, no Brady, Miller out for the season, and the Broncos are struggling as John Elway has still been unable to find a quarterback to replace Manning. There is a little less shine on the rivalry in 2020.
Denver is 1-3 a but the good news for the Broncos is that second-year quarterback Drew Lock appears to be on target to play. Back-up Jeff Driskel has already been benched and the Broncos had to go to the undrafted third-string Brett Rypien. Rypien responded with a win (well, it was over the New York Jets). Also, he threw three interceptions including a pick-six (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Denver came from behind and Melvin Gordon ran in a late touchdown to secure the win and make his fantasy owners happy as it was his second touchdown of the game and put him over 100 yards rushing.Tim Patrick topped 100 yards receiving and rookie Jerry Jeudy added a touchdown.
Denver lost Von Miller for the season already, but injuries have continued to pick-away at a defense that many analysts thought could be a strength this season. Versatile linebacker Mark Barron is out. Also out is former Pro Bowl defensive end Jurrell Casey who tore his biceps a few weeks back. Cornerback A.J. Bouye should be back soon but he is missed in the secondary.
On offense, the Broncos are missing dynamic wide receiver Courtland Sutton. With Sutton out for the year, the Broncos are missing out on the development of a true young superstar who looked ready to elevate to one of the best at that position. Impressive young tight end Noah Fant has been ruled out with an ankle injury. Fant was Denver’s leading receiver coming into this week with 19 receptions for 219 yards.
Quarterback Drew Lock, who was the other part of the future one-two punch for the offense, should return this week, along with running back Phillip Lindsay (who has been displaced by free agent signing Melvin Gordon). Lindsay is back to practice just in time for Gordon–who was arrested for DUI and speeding this week–to miss the game with strep throat.
The Patriots are coming off a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in a game of missed opportunities.
The defense held Patrick Mahomes without a touchdown for two-and-a-half quarters and limited the best quarterback with most explosive weapons in the NFL to just 236 yards passing. New England had the edge in time of possession and had more total yards, but mistakes by quarterback Brian Hoyer (before he was benched for Jarrett Stidham) sunk the Patriots.
James White returned and led the offense with seven receptions. Damiere Byrd outpaced Tyreek Hill in this game with 80 yards receiving compared to Hill’s 70 yards. TIght end Ryan Izzo had no receptions on three targets and Julian Edelman had just three receptions on six targets including a pass he missed resulting in a pick-six.
There is no doubt the Patriots were limited due to quarterback Cam Newton testing positive for Covid-19. Watching the game, it seemed clear that had Newton been able to play, the New England offense would have looked more like the unit putting up points like they had in the first three weeks.
For New England, this has been a crazy two weeks. Defending Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore also tested positive for Covid-19 after the Chiefs game, potentially leaving the Patriots without Newton and Gilmore. Instead, the game was rescheduled for this week/
Now James Ferentz has tested positive for Covid-19 and the Patriots had to shut down practice again this week. Ferentz had been starting at center with David Andrews out with a broken hand. While the game appears to be going forward, it is more shuffling for the offensive line.
This week’s game–provided it gets played–is at 1:00 p.m. Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the Boston area and on WPRI-TV Channel 12 in the greater Providence area.
Viewers get a rare treat as the best announcer in the NFL (well, my opinion, at least) Kevin Harlan will handle play-by-play duties with the more-than-competent Trent Green as the color analyst. Melanie Collins will work from the sidelines.
On radio, the game will be broadcast as always on 98.5 The Sports Hub.The flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network, it will also be found on the network’s 38 stations that carry each and every Patriots game live across New England and even into the Rochester region in upstate New York. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with fan-favorite and talk radio personality former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense and defense that will determine if the Patriots are able to emerge victorious on Sunday afternoon.
Patriots Offensive Strategy and Key Matchups:
Patriots’ WRs vs Broncos’ CBs:
Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry continue to take steps forward and grow into their roles at wide receiver. Byrd has flown under the radar but looks like a quality pick-up. Harry grows each week and his touchdown reception from Stidham against Kansas City was a preview of how he can grow into a red zone threat.
The surprise has been the inconsistent play of Julian Edelman. He has alternated between looking fine to disappearing. New England needs to be thinking about the next slot receiver for the future. Drops have been an issue for Edelman all year. Add in the struggles at tight end with Ryan Izzo in the passing game against the Chiefs and it begs the question of when will rookie Devin Asiasi get more playing time?
For the Broncos, the loss of A.J. Bouye these past weeks was expected to be devastating. Instead, veteran Bryce Callahan and rookie third-round draft pick Michael Ojemudia have picked up the slack and been effective at the outside cornerback spots. Undrafted free agent rookie Essang Bassey was starting at the slot cornerback position but he was undressed by Jamison Crowder two weeks ago.
Denver brought in journeyman De’Vante Bausby to play on the outside and he shut down the Jets outside wide receivers as Denver moved Callahan back into his natural position in the slot. Callahan is one of the better slot cornerbacks in the game and showed it against Crowder in the second half of the game. Safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons (Boston College alum!) are versatile and have great ball skills. They are one of the better safety duos in the league.
With no Bouye, Callahan on Edelman could be a tough match-up for New England. Byrd and Harry will have to take on Ojemudia and Bausby on the outside. Both are long, big cornerbacks. That is great for Denver when matching up with Harry, but for the quicker Byrd it could be another game where he will be the top target and makes a big play or two downfield.
Patriots’ RBs vs Broncos’ LBs:
The Patriots have become a running offense. With Sony Michel averaging 6.7 yards per attempt before going on injured reserve, Damien Harris stepped in averaging 5.9 yards per attempt in his first action of 2020.
Rex Burkhead continues to be a dual-threat change-of-pace back with a three touchdown game already on the statsheet in 2020. J.J. Taylor has been a spark with his top-end explosive speed. Now with James White back, the Patriots have their receiving back. Also, with Cam Newton under center, they have another running threat.
The Denver linebackers are not household names, but two weeks ago against the Jets, linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson were aggressively blitzing and looked like superstars. OK, it was against the Jets, but it was still an impressive performance.
Jewell can stuff the run and cover tight ends as well. A fourth round draft pick in 2018, he is developing into a solid NFL player and has really come into his own this season after the Broncos jettisoned veteran Todd Davis. Johnson was an undrafted free agent signing in 2018 who has become a key cog on defense.
Jeremiah Attaochu is another linebacker among the walking wounded and out this week. However, the Broncos have quality depth with former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo able to step in and contribute in need be.
Patriots’ OTs vs Broncos’ Edge/DEs:
With David Andrews out, sliding Joe Thuney to center and inserting rookie guard Mike Onwenu in his spot at left guard paid off for the New England offense. Last week, Shaq Mason was out and Thuney went back to left guard and Onwenu moved back to his natural position at right guard with James Ferentz at center.
Ferentz is out after testing positive for Covid-19 and with Andrews out and Mason out, it may be a test of the depth at the interior offensive line. Expect Thuney back at center, Hjalte Froholdt making his first start and impressive rookie Onwenu at the other guard position. Onwenu has been a steal after being scooped up from Michigan in the sixth round (drafting an overlooked Michigan player in the sixth round has worked out in the past for New England).
New England has left tackle Isaiah Wynn on the injury report with a calf injury. Shaq Mason was just moved to the Covid-19 list and is out. Last week, right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor–who has quietly and effectively stepped in for Marcus Cannon–was knocked out of the game with a migraine during pregame warm-ups. That thrust Justin Herron, an unheralded sixth-round draft pick from Wake Forest, in the starting lineup.
Herron was not perfect, giving up some pressure matched up against Pro Bowl edge rusher Frank Clark. However, with just 17 snaps played and thrown in with no preparation, it was a heck of a performance. Even the sack Clark had, on the last play of the first half, was not Herron’s fault as Brian Hoyer held the ball way too long in that situation.
No Von Miller helps the Patriots. However, Bradley Chubb is back after his ACL injury last year and looks like a wrecking ball (yes, last week was against the Jets’ terrible offensive line but he has been disruptive in the weeks prior even without the gaudy sack numbers). Second-year undrafted free agent Malik Reed is the smaller, speedier linebacker on the edge, but he is clearly not Von Miller. Practice squad pass rusher Derreck Tuszka will also get some reps on defense.
Inside pressure has been the specialty of Shelby Harris, who carved out a starting role last year after two years as a rotational player. Harris has been a beast in 2020 with 13 tackles, three tackles for a loss, six quarterback hits, a pass defended, a forced fumble and 2.5 sacks in four games.
The New England offense faces a defense which has been decimated by injuries in 2020 already. After a strong week one performance against Tennessee, they have struggled against the Steelers, Buccaneers and gave up just one offensive touchdown to the Jets, but allowed six scoring drives (five field goals). This defense let the Jets drive and take the lead with 6:33 to play in the game.
New England must focus on running the ball, finishing drives with touchdowns, and staying not leaving points on the field as they did so many times last week. Cam Newton playing will be a huge boost to the offense. Opening the offense back up with Newton under center should allow the Patriots to pile up the points against a young Denver defense.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS SCORED: 31
Patriots Defensive Strategy and Key Matchups:
Broncos’ WRs/TEs vs Patriots’ CBs/Ss:
If the Patriots and Broncos had played last week, the positive Covid-19 diagnosis likely would have knocked Stephon Gilmore out of the game. However, he is likely going to be cleared to play on Sunday and gives New England’s secondary a big advantage.
For Denver, Courtland Sutton is out for the season on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Sutton, a 2018 second round draft pick, had 72 receptions for 1,112 yards last season emerging as a budding superstar. Size, speed and smarts, Sutton is the complete package. What a match-up that would have been to see Sutton going up against Gilmore one-on-one all afternoon.
The New England secondary had their best game of 2020 looking like the dominant unit of 2019 against the Chiefs. Getting Gilmore on the field this week is a huge plus for the Patriots. With Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Joejuan Williams, there is enough talent for New England to cover anyone.
With the depth at safety with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Terrence Brooks, the secondary remains the strength of the defense. Veteran and young quarterbacks both struggle with the aggressive man coverage and versatile safeties able to cover, help in the run and take on a linebacker role if need be.
For the Broncos, rookie Jerry Jeudy is an explosive player in the making. As a rookie, he is still learning but leads the team in receiving yards. Tim Patrick has carved out a role in Denver after bouncing around practice squads as an undrafted free agent. Patrick has size and topped 100 yards receiving last week (yes, I know it was against the Jets).
DaeSean Hamilton is the third wide receiver but has just three receptions in four games. Hamilton is another big receiver like Patrick. Hamilton and Patrick were supposed to be the fourth and fifth wide receivers with Sutton, Jeudy and second-round draft pick K.J. Hamler as the starters. With Sutton hurt and Hamler nursing a hamstring injury, the Broncos weapons are diminished.
Tight end Noah Fant is a tough match-up with size and speed at tight end (like Travis Kelce, he is more slot receiver than inline blocker). Fant has been ruled out and is a huge loss for the Broncos this week. Jake Butt and Nick Vannett have a combined four receptions for six yards total in four games on ten targets.
Broncos’ RBs vs Patriots’ LBs:
The Broncos already had Phillip Lindsay at running back. He went to a Pro Bowl. He played his college ball at Colorado. He has great hair. He was an undrafted free agent. He topped 1,000 rushing in each of his first two seasons. Did I mention his hair already? He had 16 touchdowns.
So of course Denver went out and threw $13.5 million guaranteed over two years to former Chargers two-time Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon. So far, it looks genius as Lindsay went down in week one with a toe injury. He should be back this week just in time.
Gordon has had a bad week. On Tuesday he was arrested on a DUI and speeding. He got sick on Friday, and fortunately it appears to be strep throat and not Covid-19. Gordon topped 100 yards for the first time this season last week (yes, I understand it was against the Jets’ defense).
Gordon last saw the New England defense in 2018 when the Patriots held him to 15 yards rushing on nine carries when the Patriots crushed the Chargers 41-28 (it was not even close–the Chargers scored a ton of garbage points as it was 38-7 halfway through the third quarter).
The Patriots have thumbed their noses at opposing running backs. Outside of goal line situations, the Patriots have had multiple defensive backs almost all game. Many times, offenses are running against a defense with one or two defensive backs in a linebacker role.
Ja’Whaun Bentley has been fantastic as he fills in for Dont’a Hightower in the middle of the defense. Against Kansas City, Brandon Copeland did not play a snap at linebacker as New England went with light fronts against the Chiefs’ aerial attack.
Denver has their quarterback and running back coming back after missing multiple weeks. If they are rusty, the running game may not be part of the game plan for Denver if they fall behind early.
Broncos’ OL vs Patriots’ DL:
Denver has struggled at the offensive line going back to the Peyton Manning era. For whatever reason they have been unable to put it together year-after-year-after-year. Whether bringing in past-their-prime veterans or loading up in the draft, the Broncos again have one of the weakest offensive lines in the NFL.
In the past four years the Broncos have invested high draft picks on left tackle Garrett Bolles (2017 first round), guard Dalton Risner (2019 second round) and center Lloyd Cushenberry III (2020 third round). This offseason they added former Detroit Lions guard Graham Glasgow and former Tampa Bay tackle Demar Dotson.
Last year Denver broke the bank to sign right tackle Ja’Wuan James who had five highly inconsistent seasons in Miami. He was injured and played just 63 snaps in his first year in Denver and opted-out of the 2020 season. Super-sub Elijah Wilkinson was initially starting at right tackle but ended up on injured reserve a few weeks ago. Dotson is on the backslope of his career and basically a six-foot-nine statue.
Cushenberry has struggled mightily through four games. Bolles is famous with the Denver media for his seemingly endless holding penalties–with the officials swallowing their flags in regards to offensive holding this season, Bolles is unsurprisingly thriving. This is basically his last chance this season for a big extension.
Risner has settled in at left guard and is probably the best of the bunch in Denver. He is brash, tough and plays angry. Unfortunately, his footwork and movement have him at guard and not tackle where he was drafted to play. Glasgow is solid (he is getting paid as elite guard, so good for him–it is not my money), but both are hurt by having to hold the hand of the rookie Cushenberry so far in 2020.
This weekend’s match-up reminds me of going against the Jets and quarterback Sam Darnold in the famous “seeing ghosts” game. The Broncos up-front have little experience playing together, are not the most talented, and vulnerable to blitzing so far this season.
Winning on first and second down can set-up a nightmare scenario for second-year quarterback Drew Lock. The New England amoeba defense should make a return on third and long situations. With Denver struggling to block non-exotic fronts and blitzes, adding multiple pass rushers standing and moving at the line of scrimmage with Denver having no idea who is coming and who dropping back will drive them crazy.
New England has received elite pass rushing from second-year edge rusher Chase Winovich so far in 2020. Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers and John Simon have done well with the opportunities they receive. Deatrich Wise Jr. has rebounded after a quiet 2019 season. Surprisingly quiet through four games have been Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler (Butler has been dinged-up with a shoulder injury).
Not surprisingly, Simon and Winovich have become regulars on the edge as they both have been so strong setting the edge against the run and disciplined staying in their rush lanes and containing the pocket to prevent big plays. Rivers did not play as much versus Kansas City, but part of that was game planning to keep Patrick Mahomes in the pocket. He is out this week as he was added to the Covid-19 list.
The Patriots may not have had much practice time over the past two weeks, but this defense is veteran-heavy still and facing a young quarterback who has missed time due to injury and is missing some key offensive weapons. Add in the troubles up front in the trenches, and this is a game that the defense could create some turnovers and help out the offense.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 16
Expected Final Score: New England 31 – Denver 16
The New England defense misses 2019 starters Danny Shelton, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. However, with the “Preseason” portion of the regular season over, the New England defense is looking much more like the smothering “Boogeymen” unit it was in 2019.
The Patriots learned against Kansas CIty the difference in the offense with Cam Newton at quarterback compared to Brian Hoyer. This match-up against a Denver team that desperately needs to tank and get one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2021 draft should favor the Patriots in all phases of the game.
Denver is beat-up, beat-down and should already be looking forward to 2021. The Patriots should be able to get back in the win column without much difficulty on Sunday (or whenever this game gets played!).
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01 and at @FPC_Patriots for live tweeting and instant analysis during the Patriots games.