New England’s unbeaten run faces its toughest test yet as the Patriots travel to Denver this week. The Broncos have a new quarterback in Brock Osweiler and one of the league’s best defenses and are the biggest threat to Tom Brady and co. all season. The Patriots have proven their doubters wrong again by starting 10-0 thanks to MVP-calibre play from Tom Brady and a strong defense. But injuries are starting to mount up on offense, diminishing New England’s air of invincibility. The Broncos struggled for several games with Peyton Manning reaching an all-time low, and benched the legendary signal-caller to help him recover from a foot injury. Brock Osweiler finally gets the chance to show what he can do, and led the Broncos to a 17-15 win over Chicago last week.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Bill Belichick’s defense vs Brock Osweiler
Bill Belichick usually makes mincemeat of both rookie quarterbacks and inexperienced young passers like Osweiler. Last week was Osweiler’s first start, and he was far from perfect. Against inexperienced signal callers, Belichick usually eschews a heavy pass rush and instead focuses on misdirecting and deceiving the opposing quarterback. As good as Denver’s defense is, New England’s is also quietly one of the best in the league, and is certainly one of the most talented groups Belichick has had in almost a decade. It will be a long afternoon for Brock Osweiler.
2. Who will Tom Brady throw to?
Three of New England’s best offensive weapons will miss Sunday’s clash against Denver. Shifty running back Dion Lewis is out for the season while Julian Edelman won’t return until the playoffs due to a foot injury. Danny Amendola has also been ruled out for Sunday after being side-lined against the Bills last week. Backup Aaron Dobson is also out, as well as Keshawn Martin. Essentially left with just Rob Gronkowski, LaGarrette Blount and James White, Brady could have a hard time moving the ball against Denver’s dominant defense.
3. Can Denver run the ball?
Last week against the Bears, Denver’s struggling running game seemed to get things going with Osweiler in the mix. Head coach Gary Kubiak has said that with Osweiler in the game he can run the offense he wants without splitting the strategy with the way Peyton Manning works. But against a strong defense like the Patriots, can the Broncos continue the trend? The Patriots rank third against the run, allowing just 88.8 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. New England’s linebacker corps is strong against both the run and the pass, while rookie defensive tackle Malcolm Brown has been a roadblock on the interior. Denver may struggle to get the run game going, putting more pressure on Osweiler.
Matchup to watch: Rob Gronkowski vs Denver’s defense
Against the Bills, Gronk had his worst stat-line of the season; managing just two catches for 37 yards and no touchdowns. Rex Ryan kept Gronk out of the game by giving him lots of different looks instead of trying to jam him straight away off the line. Gronk was even double and triple teamed at times, and was covered by corners, safeties, linebackers and even a defensive lineman at one stage. Denver has the depth on defense to construct a similar plan. With Edelman, Lewis, and Amendola out, Gronk is Brady’s best remaining weapon. Taking him out of the game should keep the score close and give Osweiler better chances to score.
Prediction: New England Patriots
While Denver’s defense poses the biggest challenge to the Patriots this season, Osweiler has a greater challenge trying to decipher Bill Belichick’s defense. With New England likely able to stuff the run, Osweiler will be forced to take chances to win and will likely be forced into mistakes and turnovers. But the Broncos have a better chance than most to end the Patriots’ unbeaten run.