1) Our two teams have developed a somewhat heated rivalry. Does the New England fan base still see Denver as a "hated rival" now that Manning has retired?
To be honest, I think the rivalry was all about Peyton. That's not to say that the Broncos haven't had the Patriots number at Mile High over the past decade, but it speaks more the fact that the Broncos were elevated in the Patriots sphere of influence during the Manning years. I think the fact that the Colts have disappeared from the thoughts of Patriots fans (outside of the eyeroll from the Colts franchise starting DeflateGate) shows how important Manning was to the rivalry; he was the only player to give Bill Belichick problems on an annual basis.
But I do think the Manning years have made the Broncos a rival because at least Denver has players that stick in the collective memory of the region. Von Miller single handedly wrecked the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and he's a worthy heir to the rivalry throne, while Aqib Talib and Emmanuel Sanders are both undeniably linked to the Patriots. If the Patriots beat the Broncos comfortably over the next two seasons, then New Englanders will declare the rivalry over, but there's still a chance this could live on.
Honestly, I don't think the Patriots have a "hated rival," like the Broncos have with the Raiders. Maybe Rex Ryan, but in the way that Wile E. Coyote was the "rival" to The Road Runner, The AFC East hasn't been able to give the Patriots a consistent problem in over 15 years. The Ravens have the general respect of Patriots fans because of how great those games are whenever they play. That's kind of it.
2) Gronk is down, and Amendola has been out. Yet neither seemed to slow down New England last week against a very solid Baltimore defense. What did Brady and Belichick do to keep the offense clicking and how do you expect that to translate against Denver's defense?
The Patriots are better prepared to overcome the loss of Gronkowski than ever before. TE Martellus Bennett had his best game against the Ravens after three or four weeks of sub-par performance, while rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell has developed as a reliable receiver for Tom Brady in recent weeks. Add in Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, along with the trio of running backs in LeGarrette Blount, James White, and Dion Lewis and the Patriots are still running deep with talent.
The Patriots had five players pick up 70+ yards against the Ravens. Hogan picked up 136 yards and a touchdown, White had 84 yards, Blount had 79 yards and a touchdown, Edelman gained 73 yards, Bennett picked up 70 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell added 41 yards and a touchdown. When you have so many players in your offense that can carry the team, it makes it easier to overcome the loss of Gronkowski.
It also doesn't hurt that the Patriots have been phasing Amendola out of the offense all season- he was hurt on a punt return- in favor of Mitchell, and that Gronkowski was healthy for just four full games. The Patriots have played without both players for most of the year.
More impressively, the Patriots have no problem running the ball against the Ravens #1 ranked run defense, which certainly gave Brady some breathing room in the passing game. If the Patriots can run the ball with as much success against the Broncos, then it wouldn't be a surprise to see another good offensive performance.
3) I have a hard time honestly finding a way to be excited about any offensive prospects for the Broncos from week to week (yes, they are that bad). What weaknesses are there on the Pats' 2016 defense that might be exploited in this week's game?
The Patriots are pretty good at every single position on defense. The defense is able to match-up against most offenses and can play fairly well, but there's no real positional group for the defense to hang their hat on like the Broncos have at cornerback or at edge defender.
But with that said, there have been some rotations at linebacker and at cornerback in recent weeks as the Patriots have tried to find the best #2 players across from Dont'a Hightower and Malcolm Butler, respectively. The team has settled on Kyle Van Noy, acquired midseason from the Detroit Lions, and Eric Rowe, acquired days before the season opener from the Philadelphia Eagles, and they've been playing well against some of the worst offenses in the league.
Rowe injured his hamstring and didn't play last week, though, which elevated Logan Ryan back into the #2 cornerback spot. Look for Demaryius Thomas to match-up against Ryan, like they did in 2015. Before he was benched, Ryan was on pace for allowing the most receptions for a cornerback in the history of Pro Football Focus. If Thomas can exploit that match-up, the Broncos have a chance. In fairness to Ryan, he limited Thomas to 3 receptions for 48 yards against 20 targets in the two games in 2015. It should be a good game.
4) Every year the Patriots find new young guys that show up and start making an impact from out of nowhere. Tell us about 2 guys that are fairly unknown outside of New England who fit that bill this year and what they are doing so well for your team.
I'll pick one from each side of the ball. On the Patriots offense, RG Shaq Mason has flourished in recent weeks. He started the season with a broken hand and wasn't available to play 100% of the snaps until week 3. He took a few more weeks to get rid of the rust, but he's been really good as a pull blocker in the open field and he's improved greatly against the pass. Mason is a sophomore out of Georgia Tech, where they run the triple option, so he had no real experience as a pass blocker. Now, he's arguably the Patriots best interior lineman.
On defense, Trey Flowers has elevated his play to be the team's #1 edge defender. Flowers was originally the #3 option at the start of the season as Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long were the starters, but both Sheard and Long were benched or had their roles reduced after the bye week and Flowers has stepped up as the #1 option. Some opposing personnel folks call Flowers the Patriots best defender, which is a stretch, but he's been vitally important to the defense as both a good pass rusher and a stout run defender.
Coincidentally, both Mason and Flowers are undersized for their roles. Both players are roughly 6'2 at positions where 6'4 players dominate. Both use their leverage in different ways to win; Mason gets underneath the pads of the defensive tackles, while Flowers uses his considerable arm length to fend off offensive tackles.
5) The Patriots are coming to Denver this week where they've had quite some trouble winning. What are the three keys you have for them this week that will help them secure a victory?
First, the Patriots need to be able to run the ball on offense. The teams that have given the Broncos the most trouble in 2016 have had success running the ball up the gut, especially since the pass defense is too good to challenge on a regular basis. If the Patriots can soften the Denver defense with runs up the middle, then it will open opportunities in the play action game and with passes to the running backs in the flat.
Second, the Patriots need to stop Devontae Booker and the Broncos run offense. Bill Belichick would love to put the game on Trevor Siemian's shoulders and you can be certain that the secondary will mix-up their looks and force Siemian to throw it deep and to string together 10+ play drives that result in only field goals.
Third, the Patriots need to win the turnover battle. New England has been uncharacteristically bad with forcing takeaways this year, losing the turnover battle five times, including in both of their losses. They really haven't been this inconsistent in generating turnovers since the early 2000s and New England will have to force turnovers and protect the football if they want to win at Mile High.