The Denver Broncos (4-0, First Place AFC West) are set to play host to the Boston Patriots (3-1, Second Place AFC East) in an old-school style AFL matchup. The Broncos will be wearing an odd shade of yellow and brown while the Patriots will be wearing their old uniforms as well.
Denver is coming off of a huge win at home last week against the Dallas Cowboys when wide receiver Brandon Marshall made probably the play of the week and gave the Broncos a 16-10 lead late in the fourth quarter. Even more impressive was the goal line stand from Denver led by cornerback Champ Bailey, who knocked away passes on third and fourth down to seal the victory for the Broncos.
New England or "Boston" is coming off of an impressive victory against the previously undefeated Baltimore Ravens as well as a victory over the then undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Even before that, the Patriots played the undefeated New York Jets and the 0-0 Buffalo Bills, so this game could even be considered their fifth straight against an undefeated team.
The Patriots have played a grueling schedule while the Broncos have been criticized for not having the best competition they could on the way to their 4-0 start.
This game is shaping up to be the game of the week, and if the Broncos are going to win, they are going to have to do it without the leading rusher in the AFC West: Correll Buckhalter.
Likewise, the Patriots are without starting running back and big free agent signee Fred Taylor, who is getting ready to have surgery on his ankle. His absence will mean the second straight year New England has lost its starting back to injury, and he will be replaced by a combination of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Laurence Maroney.
This game is being dubbed the "Battle of the Hoodies" for obvious reasons. Josh McDaniels is the latest branch of the Bill Belichick coaching tree to face his mentor, and both coaches have had great things to say about each other throughout the week.
Still, this game is a business, and all friendships will be thrown out the door for sixty minutes on Sunday afternoon, and the former Patriots assistant coach is sure to have his hands full.
Here are the keys to victory for the Broncos in week five.
1. Get off the field on third down defensively
The Patriots' offense, led by quarterback Tom Brady, is averaging a stellar 45.8 percent success rate in third down situations, and they get it done in a variety of ways. Brady has Wes Welker coming out of the slot, Randy Moss and Joey Galloway on the outside, and a variety of good pass-receiving backs who can pick up big yardage on screen plays.
Defensively, the Broncos are holding opponents to a similarly staggering 26.4 percent success rate. Denver's defense is fast, athletic, and smart, and they are led by a host of veterans including D.J. Williams, Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey, and Brian Dawkins.
If the Broncos are going to create opportunities for their offense, they are going to need to get off the field on third down. The Denver defense has allowed a mere two touchdowns so far this season, and only 26 points overall. It remains to be seen if this unit is of the "bend, don't break" variety or the "elite" variety.
Based on the numbers, we are forced to believe they are elite. Despite playing two of the worst teams in the NFL in consecutive weeks, the Broncos allowed opponents into the red zone a total of six times in four weeks, twice because of fumbles inside the 25 yard line.
The Broncos struggled in the first quarter against Dallas against the screen pass, and they are going to need to get ahead on New England early. Limiting screen passes and underneath routes will be crucial to victory.
2. Keep the Heat on Tom Brady
The Broncos lead the NFL in sacks this season, and they are led in that category by fourth year player Elvis Dumervil who is in just his first season as an outside linebacker in the NFL.
Dumervil is tied for the NFL lead with eight individual sacks, and his production on Sunday will be big for the Broncos.
This revamped front seven will be going up against a very solid offensive line and a quarterback who excels at making quick decisions. Any pressure they choose to apply will have to come early, often, and with help on the short passes.
Denver certainly has the cornerbacks to keep up with New England's wide receivers, and the return of Alphonso Smith to the lineup really helps the Broncos. Smith played very well at the start of this season as the nickel cornerback, and he could be a name called a lot on Sunday.
The Broncos will have to disguise their pressure, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has done a superb job of that so far this season.
3. Kyle Orton and Knowshon Moreno
These two players are going to be absolutely critical for the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
On one hand, Orton is going to need to play his very best against a defense that ranks in the top ten in many major categories. The Patriot defense, though battered right now, is one that is athletic and aggressive. The Broncos will have to use a variety of short passes, screens, and halfback delays to offset that aggressiveness.
Orton needs to be precise with his passes. He has a great arsenal at his disposal, and now that his finger appears to be fully healed (first week without glove on throwing hand) we assume his throws will be at the very least more comfortable.
Eddie Royal, the rookie phenom from 2008, has been getting blanketed by opposing defenses but with the recent emergence of Brandon Marshall on the outside and the potential return of Brandon Stokley, teams will no longer be able to key in directly on Royal.
This will help Orton with his short passing game, and another player who will help the Broncos with the aggressive style of New England is rookie running back Knowshon Moreno, who was recently named Diet Pepsi Rookie of the Week for his performance against Dallas.
Moreno has come along, slowly to be sure, but he is getting there. He is an extremely talented back who runs with a purpose, and who is extremely versatile. The Broncos are going to need a big game from the rookie on Sunday as they attempt to control the clock with their fourth ranked running game.
Running Back: Push (due to injury to Buckhalter)
Wide Receiver: Push
Tight End: Broncos
Offensive Line: Broncos
Defensive Line: Patriots
Special Teams: Patriots
This is an intriguing matchup to me. The Broncos have a lot of advantages at the skill positions, but you can never count the Patriots out with Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick in his headset.
Denver is an upstart team who is riding an emotional victory, and New England is in a similar situation after a close encounter with the Baltimore Ravens. The Broncos have the advantage of their home turf in this contest, which is a lot more significant when you are a mile above sea level compared to other venues.
The Patriots are a very talented team, but Denver's defense may be too much, and I think the offense is poised for a breakout.
It will be a fun game to watch, to be sure.