After nearly two weeks off the Patriots are finally back in action this Sunday night on national television against the Denver Broncos. The weather has turned cold, the clocks have turned back and all of a sudden it feels like the 2017 NFL season has gotten real.
The Patriots have had one of those years where injuries strike early and often, but Thursday’s addition of Martellus Bennett was just the kind of spark they needed coming off the bye. It was a bit surprising to see the Pats inactive at the trade the deadline, so the Bennett move seems like the perfect one, both on the field and off it. Now the Pats play back-to-back AFC West games, and will remain in Colorado before traveling to Mexico City to face the Raiders.
These will be two really good challenges that tell us a lot about the 2017 Patriots. They’ve had the bye week to focus in on maximizing their strengths and hiding their weaknesses, and it was also a chance to get healthy. Stephon Gilmore should be back, while Eric Rowe is making progress. Unfortunately the bye week was not enough time for Malcom Brown, Chris Hogan and Marcus Cannon, as all missed practice this week and are unlikely to play. Those are three significant absences against the Broncos, and given the travel schedule, very likely the Raiders as well.
Playing in Denver has always seemed to give the Pats trouble. Even when they win, it’s never pretty. Still, winning there last season was the kind of win that got the monkey of 2015 off their back and sparked the team on to a Super Bowl win. Even though the Broncos aren’t atop the AFC, they’re still going to give the Pats hell, and pulling out a win there is always something to build off of.
Here’s the gameplan to get win number seven and start the second half of the season out right.
Will Martellus Bennett play this weekend? That’s a big unknown as I write this with reports he has a torn rotator cuff but could play through it. Obviously he’d make a huge difference is he can go, and he showed a lot of toughness playing through injuries last year. He can take pressure off Gronk and add another big target for Tom Brady, especially on the Broncos’ half of the field. Fingers crossed Bennett can go.
But even if he can’t go, the true keys to the Patriots offense are the running backs. There’s simply no better way to avoid Denver’s pass rush than to force Von Miller et al to stop the run. Dion Lewis has had a resurgence, James White has continued his clutch play from last year’s Super Bowl, Rex Burkhead is just getting fully healthy and Mike Gillislee still seems on the verge of his own breakout game. While each has had their moments the Patriots just haven’t quite had a game where all four of them click. If and when that happens, it will be deadly.
What cannot happen is a deep-throw-heavy attack relying on Brandin Cooks and perhaps Phillip Dorsett, who should get his longest look since arriving in New England due to the absence of Hogan. That kind of gameplan would also lean heavily on Danny Amendola, which of course is a good way to get him lost for the season. Further it would also put a heavy focus on LaAdrian Waddle against Miller, and if Pats fans still have nightmares about Cannon against Miller in the 2015 AFC Championship, they can’t feel great about his backup trying to block an unabated pass rushing Miller.
Protect Brady with the run game, finish drives with touchdowns and the Patriots offense should put up enough points to win, but it’s not hard to see how they could get off plan and end up playing right into Denver’s strengths. That must be avoided at all costs.
The reason I think this game will be close is that I expect the Broncos to put their best game forward. They’ve turned the ball over 13 times in the last four games, and if they give the ball to the New England defense like that, this one won’t be close. But for whatever reason the Broncos always bring their A game against the Pats in Denver so I think they’ll play a clean game and force the Patriots to beat them with better play. Of course I hope I’m wrong and Brock Osweiler is handing out interceptions left and right, I’m just not counting on it.
The key will be to put the pressure on Osweiler by stopping the run. The Pats got run off the field in 2015 after Dont’a Hightower went down, with CJ Anderson leading the way. The Broncos will certainly look to test the Pats’ run defense early and often and that’s where this game will be determined. David Harris and Elandon Roberts are going to be key guys and must sift through blockers to make plays.
Kyle Van Noy and Cassius Marsh on the edge will have big targets on them in the run game. Their ability to set the edge and keep the play inside is a key area to focus on. If they’re losing contain it’s going to be a long night. I know if I was Denver I’d right right at them over and over.
Finally, Logan Ryan seemed to always do a pretty good job against Demaryius Thomas and now we’ll see how the Pats choose to matchup, whether it’s Gilmore or even Johnson Bademosi, who is the kind of physical corner that give Thomas a hard time. Malcolm Butler will need his A game against Emmanuel Sanders, especially if the Broncos run game gets going. We’ll see how the Pats big play issues are progressing.
But again, stop the run, force Osweiler to make downfield throws and the Patriots defense should be okay. If they force two or more turnovers the game might not even be close.
Five Points of Emphasis
- Lean on Lewis — The 2015 AFCCG would’ve been a much different game if the Pats weren’t rolling unretired Steven Jackson out there as their lead back and instead still had the electric Lewis who took the NFL landscape by storm in the first month of that season. Now Lewis looks like that same guy and we’ll see what a difference it makes when the Broncos defense aren’t just teeing off on the pass.
- Set the Edges — Without Malcom Brown and Hightower, the Patriots’ run defense has a big target on them and the Broncos should throw everything they have at New England. Personally I’d sell out to stop the run and dare them to let Brock throw it 40 times. That doesn’t seem like a formula for Denver success, but if they are getting the edge with their zone runs, the Patriots biggest weakness could be exposed.
- Play Clean — Games in Denver always bring out the weirdness in the Patriots. 2009, 2015 both times, even 2011 against Tebow all had a bunch of un-Patriot-like plays. The first missed extra point of Stephen Gostkowski‘s 2015 season cost them a chance at overtime in the AFC Championship. Just play clean, hold on to the ball, make the easy plays.
- Protect Brady — This must be done primarily by getting the run game going, but it’s on Nate Solder and Waddle too on third downs. I’d rather take a loss than see Brady get hit 20 times in this one.
- Win — As always, all that really matters is winning. Despite the Broncos’ record, a win in Denver is always a feel-good moment for Brady and Belichick and something that can spark the rest of the season.