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There were the 1-0 Jets, then the 2-0 Falcons, and the 3-0 Ravens, and now the Patriots will get ready for the surprise 4-0 Denver Broncos. New England is riding a two-game win streak, following impressive wins over Atlanta and Baltimore. Now, they will have to survive a Broncos team with a top ranked defense and dangerous offense.
This season was supposed to be a transition year for the Broncos, the only problem is that no one told them. Longtime head coach Mike Shanahan was shown the door following an 8-8 season and was replaced by Bill Belichick protege Josh McDaniels. The McDaniels era did not get off to a great start following a very public war of words between the head coach and star quarterback Jay Cutler. Eventually, Cutler was traded and the focus was turned to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who demanded a contract extension and was suspended when the team believed he was faking an injury. Despite the turmoil, they have survived some games and completely dominated others en route to their perfect 4-0 record.
Lost in the discussion of the Jay Cutler dilemma was the newly acquired Kyle Orton. Orton has emerged as the leader of this team, throwing for over 900 yards with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. For those thinking he was just a extra thrown into the Cutler deal, realize that Orton has a career record of 25-12. His weapons in Denver include Marshall, who has just begun to get going. His last game against Dallas included a 51-yard touchdown reception when he burned multiple Cowboy defenders.
The receiving team also includes former Patriots Jabar Gaffney and Daniel Graham, and Brandon Stokley, whose ridiculous catch in game one sealed a win over the Bengals. Throw in the running back tandem of Correll Buckhalter and rookie Knowshown Moreno and you are looking at one of the most dangerous offenses in football.
However, this team is not built on offense like the old Elway years. Now, the Broncos are equipped with the second ranked defense in the league. Elvis Dumervil is leading the league in sacks with eight and has been the defensive leader for a team that has compiled 15 sacks, second best in the league. D.J. Williams has been excellent with his 31 tackles, including 24 solo. Trying to beat them through the air and you will run into a fantastic secondary featuring future Hall of Fame players Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. Despite bringing in a former offensive coordinator with McDaniels, this team has a powerful defense and plays both side of the ball with near perfection.
There is no doubt that Bill Belichick is the coach of the decade. He has three Super Bowl wins in four appearances and is a two-time Coach of the Year winner, in 2003 and 2007. However, more impressive could be the number of assistant coaches that have become head coaches with other teams. Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Eric Mangini and, now, Josh McDaniels have all left for their own chance to be in the spot light. With those in the NFL, Belichick seems to save his best for their eventual matchup.
Even though he left a season after Crennel, the first matchup between Bill Belichick and a protege was against Eric Mangini’s Jets in 2006. The highly anticipated matchup went to Belichick 24-17 and the end result was an awkward handshake between the two. Next was Crennel and his Cleveland Browns. The game was a 34-17 beat down in the middle of the Patriots perfect season, with the offense being led by none other then McDaniels. The Patriots need to let Belichick do his thing and a victory should happen.
Leading rusher Fred Taylor is out for the game, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots should abandon the run. Last week, against the fantastic rush defense of the Ravens, the Patriots only amassed 85 rushing yards, but three different backs got over 20 yards. Taylor has been a pleasant surprise for New England with 201 rushing yards, on over a third of the carries. Replacing him won’t be easy.
However, it’s not impossible. There is always the presence of Laurence Maroney. Maroney has not been himself lately, but has the history of being a strong running back. His rookie year saw him run for 745 yards and he followed it with 835 yards in his sophomore season. Injuries have hurt him, but if he can get it together this week, he could be a fantastic replacement. Include a hefty dose of Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, and maybe even the occasional BenJarvus Green-Ellis appearance, and the Patriots running game could get rolling.
Fact: Correll Buckhalter and Knowshon Moreno are in the top 20 in rushing. Fact: Moreano’s 249 yards are a rookie best for this season. Fact: the Broncos are the fourth best rushing team in the NFL. After being a backup in Philadelphia, Buckhalter is proving he can be one of the best. Behind a stellar offensive line, the backs could have a strong Sunday.
For New England, they need to crowd the line and keep the backs from making it beyond the line of scrimmage. They held the duo of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee to 114 yards last week (but Rice had 103 of them). This Patriots defense if going through a makeover and, should he sign, Junior Seau won’t be there this game. Other guys need to step up and push the offensive line of Denver to their limit. By stopping the backs, you make Kyle Orton and his receivers step up, if the Patriots secondary can play like they have been, the Patriots should take this game.
Tom Brady is slowly starting to appear to becoming his old self. This season he has thrown for 1,129 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Last week, he threw for less then 40 times for the first time on the season. With a balanced attack, he went for 258 yards and a passer rating over 100, also a first on the season. By giving Brady less throws, he was able to be more selective and make smart moves and keep the chains moving.
Part of Brady’s success last week could have been the return of Wes Welker. After missing two games, Welker returned to make six catches for 48 yards. Welker’s return opened lanes for Randy Moss, who only had three catches, but averaged over 16 yards per catch, and Ben Watson, who averaged more then 25 yards per catch. Welker should be seen more this week and in doing so, he will open more deep routes for his teammates. Should Brady continue to improve, expect some deep balls and impressive catches from the likes of Moss.
Should the defense be able to control the running game of the Broncos, all the pressure will fall onto New England’s secondary. The Broncos have four guys with over 100 yards receiving, but Brandon Marshall finally seems to be progressing. He has been getting better each week and if the Patriots can’t control him, he could put up some big numbers. The Broncos are also prone to luck. It will be hard to forget the Brandon Stokley deflected catch that went 87 yards to beat the Bengals.
Now take into consideration the New England defensive backs. Four of the top five players in tackles come from the secondary: Brandon Meriweather (28), Brandon McGowan (20), Shawn Springs (19), and James Sanders (19). They are also great at making solo tackles, meaning once they get you it’s hard to get away. New England will be more then likely to crowd the line and make Kyle Orton beat them through the air. The secondary will need to hit hard and cause more drops, like the Mark Clayton blunder last week. New England will look to add to their one interception on the season and give Orton his first in the process.
Denver might be 4-0, but two of those wins are against the Browns and Raiders. Last week they beat the Cowboys by a touchdown, who were not impressive by any means. New England is coming a game against the Ravens where they were completely written off. They have momentum and they have Bill Belichick. Belichick might have said that McDaniels is the smarter coach, but there is no doubt that he loves embarrassing his proteges. No one should be surprised if it’s a blowout, but it will more the likely be a nail biter. Prediction: New England 20, Denver 13.
Tags: Ben Watson, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bill Belichick, Brandon Marshall, Brandon McGowan, Brandon Meriweather, Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey, Charlie Weis, Correll Buckhalter, D.J. Williams, Daniel Graham, Elvis Dumervil, Eric Mangini, Fred Taylor, Jabar Gaffney, James Sanders, Jay Cutler, Josh McDaniels, Kevin Faulk, Knowshown Moreano, Kyle Orton, Laurence Maroney, Mike Shanahan, Patriots, Randy Moss, Romeo Crennel, Sammy Morris, Shawn Springs, Tom Brady, Wes Welker