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Scouting the Enemy: New England Patriots

Can the Denver Broncos buck their four-game losing streak against the New England Patriots?

NFL: AFC Championship-New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to rise or continue to slip perilously in a downward spiral. The choice is up to the Denver Broncos and it’s all on the line against the New England Patriots.

After beginning the year with a 3-1 start, the Broncos have endured an avalanche of dysfunction, resulting in a four-game losing streak that has put their season in jeopardy. The four consecutive loses are the worst the team has experienced since John Elway took over the reins of the franchise in 2011. Significant signs of doubt are culminating across Broncos Country, and it’s not going to be easy to bust out of their slump with the Patriots coming to town this weekend for Sunday Night Football.

But for all the doom and gloom, a glimmer of hope shines for the Broncos. There’s no question that Tom Brady is one of, if not the greatest quarterback to ever suit up in the National Football League. However, no team has given Brady and his Patriots more fits than Denver has. In sixteen games against the Broncos, Brady sports a 7-9 record — including a woeful 3-7 record when facing them in the Mile High City. Whatever the Broncos do against the Patriots seems to work (usually), with the Denver winning three of the past five meetings, including two iconic victories in AFC Championship games in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

Overall, the Broncos maintain the edge in the all-time series against the Patriots with 30 wins in 52 meetings. Those historical tidbits may provide a small bit of confidence for fans who have already hit the panic button on the Broncos’ 2017 campaign, but if the Broncos don’t come up with a recipe for victory on Sunday night their season will be history. It’s not going to be easy to beat New England, who hasn’t lost since the first week of October and is once again gunning for the top seed in the AFC — but it isn’t an impossible task. Denver just needs to ensure they don’t end up beating themselves with ill-advised turnovers and porous efforts in the red zone which have been their bane for the past month.

Here are some of my keys to the game and how I see things shaking out.

Hart’s Keys to the Game

Who will keep Rob Gronkowski in check?

Whether they are big-time performers or relative unknowns, tight ends going up against the Broncos defense have had enormous success this season. That’s bad news for the Broncos, who will have to come up with a tremendous game plan on defense that focuses on limiting the pass-catching prowess of top-flight playmaker Rob Gronkowski. Denver cannot afford to let him have a big game — if he does, they are going to be in big trouble.

It’s impossible to expect a linebacker to cover Gronkowski one-on-one and have any success. Nobody at the position has been capable of doing that all year long, so I highly doubt that’s going to happen now. Will Darian Stewart or Justin Simmons be able to step up and do the job? Maybe, but perhaps the best success Denver could have is having someone of Talib’s size attempt to lock down Gronkowski all game long in man coverage.

Denver’s defense has to account for New England’s running backs in the passing game

With Chris Hogan out for Sunday's game and Danny Amendola questionable, expect the Patriots’ offense to feature a healthy dose of their running backs in the passing attack. Whether it’s James White, Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead — the Broncos can’t afford their talented pass-catchers to make noise out of the backfield. That’s been another facet of the game where Denver has had trouble in their 2017 campaign.

To date, those three backs have accounted for 78 targets and have caught 65 of them for over 500 yards and two scores. Brandon Marshall will have to step up and play to the level that earned him his contract extension and help take these players out of the equation and the rest of the defensive backfield will have to keep a close eye on them. They might not be household names, but they’re talented players who are dangerous in open space. Limiting their big plays, especially on third downs, will go a long way toward a victory for Denver.

Can the Broncos control the clock and pace of the game at home?

One of the most important aspects of this game will be Denver’s ability to control the clock and pace of the game while sporting a home field advantage. It’s an aspect of the game they’ve struggled with most of the year, and now would be a time to change that. The Patriots have an explosive offense, but could be down a few weapons for Sunday’s match up. The best way Denver can keep the Patriots attack at bay is by keeping them off the field.

Establish the running game, pound it down their throats and control the pace of the game. Give the defense a chance to succeed by wearing out theirs and keeping ours fresh. Airing the ball out 40 times a game and abandoning the run is a recipe for disaster. It’s quite simple folks, if the Patriots control the pace of the game and start lighting up the scoreboard, things will get ugly real quick — and I doubt Denver can compete in a shootout.

Hart’s Prediction

With the first half of the season in the books, it’s crunch time for the Broncos who are on the brink of playoff elimination. Sporting a 3-5 record with a tough second half schedule in front of them, a loss against the Patriots at home would be a devastating blow to their post-season aspirations and almost certainly bring further strain and divide among players and coaches in the locker room. The team has been in ‘must-win’ mode for a while now, but that sentiment is even more powerful in respect to this week’s gridiron battle against the Patriots.

New England will be without several key players for this game, which should prove a bit of an edge for a Broncos defense looking to rebound after a shameful performance last week on the road in Philadelphia. The season is on the line and I believe the Broncos will play much better than they did against the Eagles and finally get out of the treacherous slump they have been in over the past month.

It’ll be a nail-biter, but I’m thinking the defense redeems itself with a few turnovers that lead to scores that put the Broncos back in the win column.

Broncos 23, Patriots 20.