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NFL Preview - New England (3-1) at Denver (4-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Josh McDaniels has acquitted himself quite well during his brief tenure as a head coach after honing his skills under the mentorship of Bill Belichick. Now the pupil gets to face the ultimate test from his teacher this Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High, where McDaniels' still-unbeaten Denver Broncos will battle Belichick's New England Patriots in a marquee AFC matchup.
McDaniels was hired to supplant the accomplished Mike Shanahan as the Broncos' sideline boss in January following an eight-year apprenticeship with the Patriots, including three successful seasons as the team's offensive coordinator. The 33-year-old has so far shown he can handle the new challenges of a head coach, as Denver has roared out to a surprising 4-0 start and built a two-game lead atop the AFC West Division.
The new-look Broncos were able to keep their unblemished record intact with last Sunday's 17-10 victory over the talented Dallas Cowboys, adding a dose of legitimacy to what was perceived to be a beneficial early schedule. After pulling off a miracle 12-7 win at Cincinnati on an astounding 87-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kyle Orton to wide receiver Brandon Stokley, Denver handed creampuffs Cleveland and Oakland a pair of lopsided losses prior to besting the Cowboys.
While McDaniels' forte is offense -- he was the play-caller for the 2007 Patriots squad that set a single-season NFL records with 589 points -- it's the other side of the ball that has emerged as the Broncos' calling card under his watch. A defense that underwent an extensive offseason makeover has been one of the league's premier units in the early going, having yielded a minuscule 6.5 points and 239.8 yards per game while producing 10 turnovers.
The Patriots have been able to survive McDaniels' absence as well, with the team entering Sunday's showdown ranked fifth in the league in passing offense and having put up 25 points or more in three of their first four contests of 2009. Although New England may have a new offensive coordinator in former wide receivers coach Bill O'Brien, the three-time Super Bowl champions still have two of the NFL's elite performers at their respective positions in star quarterback Tom Brady and game-changing wide receiver Randy Moss.
Belichick's bunch also comes in off a status-building win after outlasting the previously-unbeaten Baltimore Ravens by a 27-21 count this past weekend. The triumph, New England's seventh in its last eight games dating back to last season, moved the 3-1 Pats into a first-place tie with the rival New York Jets for the top spot in the AFC East.
Denver will be seeking its first 5-0 start since 1998, a year in which the John Elway-led franchise won its first 13 games en route to a second straight Super Bowl title. The Broncos may also have a bit of revenge on their minds, considering the team endured a 41-7 shellacking by the Patriots in Massachusetts last season.
Denver owns a 24-16 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, but was a 41-7 road loser when it visited Gillette Stadium for a primetime battle last season. New England won the previous meeting, a 17-7 road win in Week 3 of the 2006 season. The Pats' were 28-20 losers in their last regular season trip to Denver, in 2005, but were 30-26 winners in their previous visit to Invesco Field at Mile High, in 2003.
Denver has won both postseason meetings between the teams, both at home. Prior to a 27-13 win in a 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff, the Broncos prevailed by a 22-17 count in an AFC Divisional Playoff from Mile High Stadium in 1986.
Belichick is just 3-9 in his career against the Broncos (regular season and playoffs), including an 0-4 mark when he was at the helm of the Browns (1991-95). Denver's McDaniels will be meeting both his mentor Belichick and former employer Patriots for the first time a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
This year's Patriots haven't been the offensive juggernaut that paved the way for a 16-0 regular-season record and Super Bowl appearance in 2007, but the group has certainly been good enough during the team's three wins. Brady (1129 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) hasn't shown much rust since returning from a serious knee injury he suffered during last year's season-opener, with the two-time Super Bowl MVP remaining efficient and productive despite getting spotty protection at times from the offensive line and safety-valve receiver Wes Welker (18 receptions) having missed two games with a knee problem. Moss (331 receiving yards, 1 TD) has helped offset the loss of his counterpart, as the six-time Pro Bowl honoree's 29 receptions are the second-most in the NFL this season, and tight end Benjamin Watson (12 receptions, 2 TD) has made a steady contribution as well to New England's potent aerial attack. Welker was back on the field against the Ravens last week and had six catches totaling 48 yards. The Pats piled up 168 rushing yards during a 16-point victory over Atlanta in Week 3, with battle-tested back Fred Taylor (201 rushing yards, 2 TD) amassing 105 yards and a score on 21 carries, but struggled to move the ball on the ground in previous games with the New York Jets and Baltimore, two of the league's better run defenses.
Denver's revamped stop unit has held its own as well versus the run, as evidenced by the modest 74 yards the Cowboys' strong ground game mustered last weekend. The Broncos also sacked Dallas' Tony Romo five times, two of which came from disruptive outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (17 tackles, 8 sacks), and have taken down enemy quarterbacks 15 times through the first four games. That formidable pass rush has certainly aided a secondary that has yet to give up a passing touchdown this year and is yielding only 162.5 yards per game (3rd overall) through the air. Eight-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey (21 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) further enhanced his reputation as one of the game's shutdown cornerbacks against the Cowboys, picking off Romo deep in Denver territory and knocking down two passes in the end zone with Dallas driving for a potential tying score in the closing seconds. Up front, the quality inside linebacker duo of D.J. Williams (31 tackles, 1 sack, 4 PD) and Andra Davis (30 tackles, 1 sack) head up a front seven that's limited the opposition to just 77.5 rushing yards per game.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The Denver defense is starting to get its just due for the club's excellent start, but the consistent play of new quarterback Kyle Orton (906 passing yards, 5 TD, 0 INT) cannot be overlooked. Acquired from Chicago in the controversial offseason trade that sent Jay Cutler to the Bears, Orton has yet to commit a turnover in a Broncos uniform and is coming off a 20-for-29, 243- yard, two-touchdown outing to help beat the Cowboys. His final pass of the day was a tie-breaking 51-yard scoring strike to mercurial wide receiver Brandon Marshall (16 receptions, 2 TD), who's re-emerged as an offensive force after beginning the season in McDaniels' doghouse. Orton has been complemented nicely by an effective rushing tandem of rookie Knowshon Moreno (249 rushing yards, 4 receptions, 2 TD) and veteran Correll Buckhalter (267 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions), although the latter will likely sit out Sunday's contest after spraining his ankle in the Dallas game. The ex-Philadelphia Eagle's expected absence could be a significant blow to an offense that has put together the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL (148.0 ypg) this season.
New England currently ranks seventh overall in total defense (287.5 ypg), a notable achievement for a group thought to be going through a transitional phase after losing such longtime stalwarts as defensive end Richard Seymour, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and safety Rodney Harrison. The Patriots have also had to withstand the loss of standout inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, who hasn't played since spraining his right knee in the season opener. The 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year could be back this week to man his customary place alongside fellow sophomore Gary Guyton (26 tackles), however. The impact of Seymour's departure has been softened somewhat by the performance of lineman Mike Wright (11 tackles), a key reserve over the past few years who leads the team with three sacks. The defense hasn't come up with a whole lot of big plays, as cornerback Leigh Bodden (14 tackles) tallied the Pats' lone interception of the year in last weekend's win over the Ravens and the Patriots have produced only eight sacks as a team.
Denver's defense has been a thorn in the side to plenty of opposing players this year, but Brady's track record offers more than enough evidence to start him even in a potentially challenging matchup. Same goes for Moss and Welker, but avoid the Patriots' crowded situation at running back if at all possible. Taylor is dealing with an ankle injury that has put his availability in question, and the trio of Kevin Faulk (62 rushing yards, 11 receptions), Laurence Maroney (78 rushing yards, 3 receptions) and Sammy Morris (41 rushing yards, 1 TD, 9 receptions) should all share work rendering none a recommended option. Moreno should be a very good play on the Broncos' side, though, since he's in line to receive a heavier load with Buckhalter probably out. Marshall is the only Denver pass-catcher worth using, while Orton would be an acceptable fill-in for those with quarterbacks on a bye week. Although the Patriots are a tough draw, the Broncos defense has been playing lights-out and has become start-worthy regardless of who it's facing.
Don't let last year's result fool you, the Broncos have shown to be a much more fundamentally sound team than the 2008 version. Still, it's hard enough to win two straight games in the NFL, let alone five in a row, and the feeling here is that Denver is going to encounter some bumps along the road sooner or later. While the Broncos' ability to generate pressure won't make for the most comfortable of days for Brady, conventional wisdom says that Orton will have a hard time keeping up his string of mistake-free performances. In what figures to be an entertaining and tightly-contested affair, the master Belichick may just have one too many tricks up his sleeve for his protege's upstart Broncos to handle.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 20, Broncos 17
10/08 17:16:39 ET