The second half of the Patriots’ 2017 starts at the closest thing Tom Brady has to a house of horrors — Mile High Stadium (or whatever it’s called now). Brady has had three playoff runs end in Denver (2005, 2013, 2015), which ties the number of playoff losses he’s had at home (2009, 2010, 2012).
The three recent losses, two in the playoffs and the overtime bummer against the quarterback they’ll face Sunday, make it seem like the Broncos rivalry is a big deal. But after their Super Bowl win, the Broncos have been on a slow-to-medium descent, which has them at 3-5, losers of four straight. Their once-feared defense just gave up 51 points to the Eagles, and despite a poor performance, they’ll start Brock Osweiler for a second week in a row.
Still, it’s hard to take much solace in how the Broncos have stumbled recently. Their three wins were all over three pretty good teams — Chargers, Cowboys and Raiders, and if there’s one team Denver will be up for, it’s New England.
Here’s a look at the Broncos and why I think this one will be closer than many of us expect or hope.
- Beware Von Miller — There’s no surprise that Von Miller is still very much a factor. His performance in the 2015 AFC Championship is burned into every Patriots’ fans brain so no one needs to be reminded that this guy can change a game by himself. Miller has eight sacks and is second on the team in tackles behind Brandon Marshall. They might not be as deep as we’re used to, but the Broncos still have a fast front seven that can make plays.
- The Receivers Remain the Same — As we’ve grown used to, it’s all Demaryius Thomas (43 catches) and Emmanuel Sanders (26 catches) leading the way for the Broncos passing attack. Osweiler targeted them a combined 17 times last week. There just isn’t much depth behind them and this will be a fascinating case study in how much the Patriots miss Logan Ryan. Ryan was excellent against Thomas, now we’ll see how Stephon Gilmore does against him.
- Anderson is Back — C.J. Anderson murdered the Patriots in the 2015 overtime loss, including busting off the long touchdown run in overtime to win the game. He missed most of 2016 but is back now though still trying to find his pre-injury form. Last week he had just nine carries for 14 yards. Despite that bad performance and a couple others, Anderson is still averaging 4.2 yards-per-attempt. The Pats have struggled with the Broncos run game, so stopping Anderson, who exploded without Dont’a Hightower on the field in 2015, will be a huge key.
- Turnovers Key — The Broncos are are dead last as a team in turnover ratio with seven takeaways and 19 giveaways. This inability to hang onto the football has been maybe their biggest overall team problem, in their last four games they have 13 turnovers. This is the kind of stat that troubles me, because teams tend to play their best football against the Patriots, so if the Broncos do play safe with the ball I think this game will be a lot closer than many are expecting.
- Brock Star — In three career games against the Pats, Brock Osweiler is 1-3, has two TDs, five interceptions and was sacked eight times. Really it was Anderson who did most of the damage in that lone win, so it would seem like Belichick has a pretty good handle on how to stop Brock, as does most of the league to be honest. The key for the Patriots will clearly start with stopping the running of Anderson. If they do that, they should be able to win this one. Still, playing in Denver always scares me. Games tend to be weird there and the Patriots never seem to play their best football there even when they’ve won. The Pats also haven’t been great coming off the bye in recent years which makes this one all the more dicey.