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Broncos-Patriots: Five Things to Watch

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Five things to watch heading into Sunday’s Broncos-Patriots clash at Gillette Stadium:

1. PICK YOUR POISON?

If Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez sits out because of his ankle injury — he was listed as questionable on the injury report — the Broncos’ cause is helped, but even without him, the Patriots remain blessed with an array of targets for which the Broncos have to account.

If Wes Welker lines up at the slot receiver — as expected — then nickelback Chris Harris will draw that assignment more often than not. Harris held his own and kept Welker in check; in the two games, he averaged five receptions for 48 yards. Brandon Lloyd will line up outside, and likely will be covered by Champ Bailey on most plays; given that Tom Brady threw at Bailey just once in two games last year, it’s likely that Lloyd won’t be much of a factor if Bailey guards him man-on-man.

The problem is what that leaves for Rob Gronkowski, who averaged seven catches for 99 yards in the two games last season. Do the Broncos bring Tracy Porter or even Champ Bailey inside to help and take their chances on the outside? Do they rotate linebackers and safeties on Gronkowski, knowing what that would sacrifice against the Patriots’ suddenly potent ground game — and knowing that Stevan Ridley averaged 5.7 yards per carry against them last year? If they use linebackers, which one works best? Use Wesley Woodyard and you sacrifice size; use Keith Brooking or Joe Mays and you sacrifice speed — although Brooking is the savviest linebacker the Broncos possess — and if you use Von Miller, you remove him from the pass rush, while also putting him in a situation where he has struggled, evidenced by touchdowns allowed to San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (in the preseason) and Houston’s Owen Daniels in fairly limited coverage work.

Without Hernandez, there are slightly fewer questions — but still no easy answers for defending Gronkowski, the NFL’s best tight end.

2. PROTECT PEYTON.

It’s obvious, but this is still an offensive line in a state of flux, with Chris Kuper expected back in the lineup at right guard and Dan Koppen making his first Broncos start after replacing J.D. Walton last week. The Patriots know Koppen’s post-ankle-injury weaknesses from watching him daily in training camp, so don’t be surprised if they attack through the A-gap to try and disrupt Manning. This means that not only must Koppen be on his toes, but the running backs must be prepared to step in for more blitz pickups than last week.

3. KEEP NEW ENGLAND OFF-BALANCE.

A somewhat relevant trivia item: The last running back to break the 100-yard barrier and score a touchdown against the Patriots and lose was Willis McGahee, five years ago with the Ravens. Since then, New England is 0-5 when allowing a back to hit triple digits and rush for a score — most recently when Baltimore’s Ray Rice accomplished that two weeks ago — and 5-19 overall in the 13-season Belichick era when that happens.

A key is not to abandon the running game. Since 2005, only three teams have seen fewer run attempts against them — but the Patriots also rank 21st in yardage per carry against them, allowing 4.31 yards per rush. New England is also 9-13 since 2005 when teams rush 32 or more times, including Arizona in a Week 2 upset at Gillette Stadium.

The Broncos must be patient if open lanes aren’t there early — while also hoping their defense can hold off New England long enough to keep Denver’s offense balanced.

4. NO SLOPPINESS.

No AFC team has forced more takeaways than the Patriots (11). For most of the season, the Broncos have been sufficiently protective, in 15 of the quarters played this season, they have just three giveaways. The first quarter in Atlanta Sept. 17 skews that; the Broncos turned over the ball four times, including three deep interceptions off Peyton Manning.

New England can disguise its coverages in much the same manner as the Falcons, which is why it would probably be wise for Manning to take what’s readily available early, and not go for the knockdown punch in the first few minutes. Nine of the Broncos’ 12 offensive touchdowns have come in the second half, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be confident of eventually breaking through and scoring in bunches. If they take what’s there, avoid dropped passes and don’t force the issue early, an opportunity to win should be in their grasp.

5. AVOID INTIMIDATION.

If the Broncos take their cues from Manning, this won’t be a concern. His early-career skittishness against the Patriots — particularly after Brady’s arrival — is consigned to the increasingly distant past, evidenced by his 5-2 record against them since 2005, including a 2-1 mark at Gillette Stadium. But the Patriots did psych out the Broncos last year — not directly, but effectively nonetheless.

“I think last year, it was pretty obvious we didn’t put our best effort in that last game,” Bailey said of the 45-10 playoff loss. “It was real disappointing to get that far and not put forth 100 percent, but it is what it is; it’s in the past, and this is a different year, different breed of guys going in there.”

Even the returning players seem to embrace the challenge more. The Patriots don’t have the best record in the AFC, and have been set back by mistakes, bobbles and hiccups that haven’t plagued the conference’s last remaining unbeaten team, the Houston Texans., But they’re still the defending conference champions. From the Broncos’ vantage, they look like the irresistible force; 86 points scored in four quarters at their expense has a way of lingering.

PREDICTION: Patriots 31, Broncos 27.

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