This one is no automatic win. As head coach extraordinaire and football historian will tell you, last year (and the year before, and the year before, etc.) means nothing. Of course, that's what he'll tell you while he's coaching, especially when he's coaching one of the teams involved.
Well, that's not necessarily the case. Sure, lots can change from year to year. Sure, one game doesn't necessarily impact the next. Sure, long-range history (more than a handful of years) must be taken with a grain of salt, at best. But looking at short-term history between teams that face each other somewhat frequently? Yes, you can draw from that.
And so New England is 1-4 against Denver in the Tom Brady era. That's less than great. The Broncos, more than any team, has "had New England's number" over the last five seasons, including last year's playoffs, whatever the debate of the events of that game. And Brady has had some of his personally worst games against Denver.
So does it matter, or doesn't it? Yes. Asbsolutely.
No. Not at all.
I hope that helped.
Yes, such a short-term streak, such as Denver has had against New England, can indicate they have a matchup advantage against the Patriots. But Belichick rarely makes the same mistakes, and he almost always has his team prepared.
You could go on like this forever.
So here's the deal. Both teams are going to try to run. Both teams are going to try to stop the run. Both teams are going to ask their quarterbacks to take advantage of apparently mismatches in defensive alignments. Both will look for the occasional quick strike. It will come down to who can execute that game plan early, and whether the other team can effectively play catch-up later.
Neither team has exactly imposed their will on lesser opponents. Neither has lived up to its potential. They both need to start putting things together, and if one does and the other doesn't, the game will be over early.
New England is third in the league in rushing (165.0 yards per game), and Denver is fourth (153.0 ypg). New England is 20th in passing (173.5 ypg); Denver is 27th (135.5 ypg). Defensively, the Patriots are ninth against the run (75.0 ypg); the Broncos are 24th (135.0 ypg). And New England is 18th against the pass (213.5 ypg), and Denver is eighth (163.0 ypg).
I don't think, after two games, you can draw too much out of here, either. Both teams can run, as expected. Both teams are struggling passing, as expected. New England is great at run-stopping and Denver at pass defense, as expected. New England is struggling in pass defense (thanks to some poor tackling and some Jets luck) and Denver is struggling stopping the run. Neither of which is particularly expected.
You can forget the bad officiating in January. You can forget the whole "grudge match" insinuations. There are no significant injuries. Weather shouldn't be a factor (mid-60s, scattered showers, humid).
Field condition could be interesting. Gillette Stadium, for a pretty new stadium, has a playing surface like a rocky, rooted hiking trail. That, more than the Foxboro crowd, creates a home-field advantage for the Patriots.
It's because of all the factors mentioned to this point that this game is more unpredictable than it should be. It should be that New England will dominate the ground game, Brady will be his historically efficient self, and Denver's secondary will keep them in it. The Patriots defense should definitely have a pretty good advantage over Denver's offense, but last week's second-half performance makes that suspect.
From the Patriots perspective, it comes down to Brady starting to sync with his receivers, and the defensive secondary remembering fundamental tackling. The interspersing of a 3-4 and 4-3 defense should help New England in the long run, but could be a little confusing still. It's not like going to the 4-7 like they did once against Drew Bledsoe, where the whole defense change, but did just one thing for the whole game. It's knowing two defenses with equal acumen and being able to execute them with equal efficiency and precision.
Wait a minute. Red-zone offense (and defense). Yes, I'm sure that's it. That will be the key to the game.
Denver is 1-for-3 in red-zone efficiency, going 1-for-1 in a loss to St. Louis, and 0-for-2 in a three field goal effort against Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Broncos defense has been impregnable. Opponents are 0-for-7, with the Rams fruitless 0-for-5, including 0-for-4 in goal-to-go situations.
New England is 5-of-8 in red-zone offense, including last week's blocked field goal, and their opponents are 1-for-3. Buffalo was 1-of-2, including the only goal-to-go the Patriots defense has faced, while the Jets squandered their single chance but scored on two long, fluky plays that just skipped past the red zone.
The edge here goes to the Patriots. These stats show New England can drive the length of the field and has been successful finishing drives. They also have limited opponents from getting within striking distance (except when that striking distance has been, oh, say, 70 yards). Denver, on the other hand, has been devastating defensively, against less than effective offenses, while being offensively inept.
The Patriots red-zone offensive numbers indicate something else: ball control. With the exception of some questionable play-calling in the second half against the Jets, the Patriots have controlled -- and early against the Jets, dominated -- the clock. They burn time, and they wear down defenses. Denver, it seems, relies on its defense to make big stops.
If the Broncos can maintain that defensive status quo, we'll learn a lot about rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski and we'll learn if he learned from last week's possibly low kick. (Incidentally, Belichick said the Patriots have been less than stellar blocking on the line on placekick attempts. He said that Buffalo almost did the same thing in Week 1 that New York did breaking through a gap last week.)
Of course, mistakes play huge roles in games like this, like they did in January. A Brady fumble in each of the first two games hurt the Patriots, and an interception have each haven't helped. Meanwhile, the defense hasn't forced those kinds of mistakes from their opponents, but they have made a couple very key fourth down stands, which are just as good as turnovers. And after committing only one penalty in Week 1, New England was flagged six times, including a couple nice acting jobs by the Jets, last week.
Jake Plummer had three interceptions and a fumble in Week 1 and a pick last week, but the Broncos have generally taken care of the ball otherwise. Denver had four penalties in their loss to the Rams, but, for only their third time ever, none last week.
If anyone makes a mistake this week, expect it to count.
The Patriots need to stick to their gameplan throughout. They were manhandling the Jets until they, for some reason, strayed from their successful ball-control style. Until Brady and his receivers really start to gel, keep it conservative.
Prediction: Patriots, 20-17.
Al Michaels and John Madden have the call (Andrea Kramer on the sideline) on NBC (Ch. 7 locally) at 8:15 p.m. On the radio, if you like torture, it's Dave Sims and Bob Trumpy on the Westwood One radio network, which should be carried on WEEI (850 AM in Boston 1440 AM in Worcester, 103.7 FM in Providence). Best of all, it's Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti on WBCN (104.1 FM).