Thursday, January 12, 2006

Preview of Patriots vs. Broncos (1/12/2006)

Patriots/Broncos has to be one of the most lopsided rivalries in NFL history. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Broncos have a 16-5 record against the Pats, have never lost to them in the playoffs (1-0), and regularly beat the snot out of them (average score in their victories is 29-14). And it wasn't just a bunch of home games in the thin air of Denver; they won at home, on the road, early in the year, late in the year, when they went 5-9, when they went 14-2, with Craig Morton or John Elway or Brian Griese at quarterback, in the regular season, and in the playoffs... you name the circumstance and somehow they always seem to beat the Patriots. And that is really what makes this weekend's game in Denver so tough and so intriguing all at the same time.

I will break down this game the same way I did for last year's playoffs-- by using the earlier game between the teams (the Broncos won 28-20 on October 16, 2005) as a springboard to investigate any substantial changes that might play a role in changing the outcome. And note: even though the first game was an eight-point loss, I'm treating it as if it was a 14-point loss -- because the Broncos really did smack the Patriots around. And as usual, if you are short on time, you can skip forward to the Summary section for the main points in bullet-list format.

Point #1: The Broncos won't move the ball as easily or score as often as they did in October.

Here's a short list of the Patriots defenders who didn't play in October but will play on Saturday: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Ellis Hobbs, and Artrell Hawkins. Additionally, Rosevelt Colvin is playing at least twice as well now, Monty Beisel won't be starting (though he's playing much better in the substitution role), Chad Brown will see spot duty on passing downs, Jarvis Green can go back to being a backup, and Duane "Doh" Starks and James "Where am I" Sanders are out for the year. Also remember that the first Broncos game was Mike Vrabel's initial game at inside linebacker, and he's had 11 games to get better (and has he *ever* gotten better).

So don't expect that the Broncos will rush for 178 yards (the Pats have given up an average of only 42 yards in the last five games -- excluding the "pre-season" game against Miami) or that Tatum Bell will gash them for a 68-yard burst. And don't expect that Denver QB Jake Plummer will post a 134.4 passer rating or that Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie will run free for 50+ yard receptions.

No Monty Beisel or Duane Starks to abuse, vastly improved play in all phases of defense, and better defensive play-calling means less offensive output for the Broncos.

Point #2: The Patriots offense has improved, too.

Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk will play on Saturday (after missing the earlier game), and that means Patrick Pass won't lead the team in rushing and Amos Zereoue won't miss any blitz pickup on third down. And playing Troy Brown instead of Tim Dwight is trading a proven playoff performer for a guy with questionable hands. Logan Mankins, Nick Kazcur, and Russ Hochstein will anchor a much improved offensive line. Hochstein replaced center Dan Koppen because of an injury and the team has rushed the ball better ever since. Kazcur has improved almost every game since getting schooled by the veteran Broncos defensive line, and Mankins is unlikely to be ejected at the half again.

The Broncos defense is a little banged up, but even if it wasn't, I'd predict the Patriots would do better on offense. Getting Dillon and Faulk back is huge, and the O-line will definitely play better than they did in the first game.

Point #3: The Patriots need to keep the game manageable so they have a chance to close the gap in the second half.

Even with improved offense and defense, I still expect the Broncos to get a first half lead. In the five Patriots/Broncos games prior to Bill Belichick's arrival, the Broncos out-scored the Pats 52-13 in the first quarter. In the five games under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have won that battle 34-21. But they seem to have moved the carnage from the first quarter to the second quarter, where Denver only out-scored them 36-27 prior to Belichick but has pasted them 51-27 since. In fact, the Pats scored first in the game this past October, and even held Denver to zero points on three drives in the first quarter. But Denver's 21-0 second quarter put the game on ice before halftime.

The Patriots are a much better second half team this season. In 12 of 17 games, they scored more points in the second half. In 10 of 17 games, they gave up fewer points in the second half or had first half shutouts (three times). All in all, they've played about even in the first half (175-171), but they've dominated the second half (236-166). So if they fall behind early, there's no need to panic.

If the Patriots are within 10 points at the half, they should trust their ability to come back in the third and fourth quarters.

Point #4: Bill Belichick has a stellar record when playing a team for the second time in a year.

Including the playoffs, Bill Belichick's Patriots are 20-4 the second time they play a team in the same season. And two of those losses were meaningless games against Miami. It's obvious that Belichick uses the first game to learn about his opponents and then makes a better plan the second time around. Belichick's D always tightens things up the second time around, humbling everyone from league MVPs (Peyton Manning and Steve McNair) to NFL rushing champions (Curtis Martin).

Now, due to scheduling and injury factors, October's game against the Patriots was the first time Jake Plummer played a Belichick defense, and the defense he faced wasn't at full strength. But with the Patriots returning to their complex blitz packages, press coverage, and greatly improved run-stopping, Jake will have to produce more than he did in the first game. And that might be the crux of the issue; because the Broncos can't just force the run down the Patriost throat and the Pats pass defense will not be as easily beaten as it was in October.

All of which leads to the question of whether or not Jake can make big plays in playoff pressure situations. They didn't ask him to do much during the season; he had only 18 touchdowns for the year. By comparison, consider that Ben "the next big thing" Roethlisberger had only 17 touchdowns last season, and the Patriots toyed with him in a 41-27 blowout win in the playoffs. In fact, the more I think about this Saturday's game, it feels a lot like last year's Pittsburgh game.

Also noteworthy: Belichick's playoff record when playing a team the second time that year: 5-0.


1. The Patriots defense is much healthier now than they were for the October game, and they will not allow as many long plays or such an impressive quarterback performance this time.

2. The Patriots offense has also gotten healthy (although not to the same extent), and having Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, et al on the field will mean more time of possession (the Broncos won that battle 32:17 to 27:43 in the first game). And all of that translates into more points and a well-rested defense.

3. The Patriots need to keep the score reasonably close in the first half, because Denver is a better first half team and New England is a better second half team.

4. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots are 20-4 when playing a team for the second time in a year. They are 5-0 in the playoffs.

Some other Quick Points:

A. Belichick used the season-ending Miami game and the Jacksonville playoff game as pseudo-bye weeks. He rested almost every starter against Miami and for most of the second half against Jacksonville, so the players should be fresh.

B. Denver's best chance to win is to build at least a 14-point first half lead. If it's closer than 10 points, the Patriots will likely come back to win.

C. For all the Patriots problems in the first game, they held the Broncos to 13 yards on the first two drives combined, but the offense let the team down by scoring only 3 points during that stretch.

The Bottom Line:

So where does that leave us. Well, I think that enough factors have changed since October to even up the blowout loss. Denver will still get out to a lead in the first half (otherwise, they're toast), and the Patriots will definitely mount a comeback, and the score will be close. I just think the Patriots defense is so much better against the run now than it was then, and Jake Plummer will have to beat them through the air. He did it in the first game with no pressure (only 1 sack of Plummer) against a bad secondary; but I doubt he can do it against a lot of pressure (Pats have 24 sacks in their last 6 games) and a vastly improved secondary.

The Pats can't stop the Denver running game, but Belichick will make it a priority to slow it down. And the Pats offense can score enough to make the Broncos take some chances in the passing game. Once that happens, it comes down to whether Jake Plummer reverts to form (150 touchdowns and 148 interceptions in his career) or continues to be the efficient/steady/mistake-free quarterback of the 2005 regular season. (BTW, he had similar stats two years ago and still lost big in the playoffs.) My bet is he'll revert to old habits when under pressure, and if the Patriots can keep him in the pocket, he won't beat them often enough to win the game. Call me crazy, but I'll take Tom Brady over Jake Plummer any day. Patriots win a close one, 27-21.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Since Belichick got here, the Patriots are 20-4 when they play a team for the second time in a season. That includes 5-0 in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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