The undefeated New England Patriots (10-0) travel to Denver to take on the 8-2 Broncos on "Sunday Night Football" in a key AFC clash that will have playoff implications. Brock Osweiler gets his second career start in place of the injured and fading Peyton Manning, taking some of the anticipated luster off of a game that would've been billed as another epic quarterback duel.
Instead, this game is now shaping up as a defensive struggle with the Patriots reeling from injuries to their wide receivers and the Broncos still getting Osweiler's feet wet. Offensively neither team is quite the unstoppable force we've seen them be over the past few seasons.
No, this time around it's the defenses that are the focus. The Patriots are first in points allowed and second in rushing defense, while the Broncos are second in points allowed and first in passing defense. Add it all up and this one could be a low-scoring defensive struggle that hinges on who makes the critical mistakes.
New England at Denver
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Patriots -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Take Away Gronk
The Bills did a fantastic job taking Rob Gronkowski out of the game on Monday night. They used an ever-changing array of coverages and held Gronk to his lowest output of the season, just two catches for 37 yards. With Danny Amendola (knee sprain) being the latest casualty, Gronkowski should once again be the primary focus for the Broncos' defense. With Amendola sidelined that will leave just Brandon LaFell, practice squad call-up Chris Harper and possibly journeyman Keshawn Martin as the Patriots' wide receivers. Denver's defense would be licking their chops at those matchups.
2. Butler on Demaryius Thomas
Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has come on in the last two weeks with his best performances of the year against Odell Beckham Jr. and Sammie Watkins. Now he'll likely cover Demaryius Thomas, probably his toughest test of the year. Still, Butler's physicality and positioning are excellent and this experience should serve him well. The Patriots were dead in the water against Thomas in the 2013 AFC Championship Game after they lost Aqib Talib to injury. Now we see if Butler can prevent the same thing from happening.
3. Osweiler vs. Belichick
Bill Belichick only has a limited amount of film on Brock Osweiler, but should still be able to devise a game plan that requires the young quarterback to play a perfect game. The Patriots have their best array of pass rushers in the last decade and will disguise and generate push on the pocket passer. The game might just come down to which quarterback makes more mistakes and this is a big test for the Broncos' hopeful heir apparent.
The Patriots are severely lacking offensive weaponry coming into this one and the Broncos have just the kind of defense to exploit that kind of weakness. Still, with an inexperienced quarterback facing a tough Patriots defense, things won't be easy for the Broncos' offense either. Denver still has the explosive playmakers on offense that the Patriots are lacking, but getting them the ball will be the challenge. If Osweiler takes the easy throws and avoids mistakes Denver should hand New England its first loss of the year, but you can never rule Tom Brady out. If his offensive line solves its problems from the Bills game, it won't matter who's playing wide receiver for the Pats.