On the surface, it looks like not much has changed for the new England Patriots over the course of the first half of the season. They lead the NFL in total offense, and it’s a good thing they do, because their defense ranks dead last. It’s up to Tom Brady and company to outscore opponents, right?
Not so much anymore. Despite missing some key pieces due to injury, Bill Belichick has found a way to turn his defense around. The Pats have allowed 17 points or fewer in four straight games, and have allowed fewer than 350 yards in each of the last two. Despite the ugly ranking in total defense, New England ranks a respectable 16th in points allowed.
Meanwhile, the Denver defense has done everything it can to carry a struggling offense. But a 3–1 start has been followed by a four-game losing streak, and the Broncos rank 25th in points allowed despite ranking second in yards allowed. Why? Because the offense keeps giving the ball away. During the current skid, Denver has turned the ball over 13 times. No matter how good your defense is, you can’t win that way.
New England at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 12 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Patriots -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Pats D could feast on Osweiler
Brock Osweiler (above, right) got his first start since returning to the Broncos last week, and it was basically a disaster. In a 51–23 loss at Philadelphia, he completed just half of his 38 attempts for 208 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. It wasn’t exactly the spark Denver was looking for after benching Trevor Siemian. Perhaps Osweiler can recreate the magic he found the first time he faced the Patriots, also on a Sunday night in 2015. Filling in for the injured Peyton Manning, Osweiler rallied Denver with two late touchdowns in the snow to beat New England, 30–24. But it’s more likely this one will end like Osweiler’s two starts against the Pats last season while with the Houston Texans. In a 27–0 loss in October and a 34–16 loss in the playoffs, Osweiler combined to hit just 56 percent of his passes for 393 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions.
2. Denver must rediscover its pass rush
After ranking among the top three in the NFL in sacks each of the last two seasons, the Broncos have been average at best at getting to the quarterback this season (19 sacks, 16th in the NFL). Von Miller has been his usual dominating self (8.0 sacks in eight games), but others have not. Derek Wolfe has just one sack after notching 5.5 each of the last two seasons, and Shane Ray, who had eight sacks a year ago, has appeared in just two games due to injury. He is questionable with a wrist injury for this game. On the plus side for Denver, Tom Brady is on pace to take the most sacks in his career (21 so far in eight games), and he’s gone down at least three times in five different games this season. It’s part of the reason why the Pats haven’t scored 30 points in a game since Oct. 1 despite ranking first in yards and second in turnovers in the NFL.
3. Patriots' sneaky-bad run defense
New England gave up loads of big plays through the air over the season’s first month, which is why they rank last in the NFL in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed. But with star linebacker Dont’a Hightower out for the season, the Broncos really should attack the Pats on the ground. New England is allowing an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per carry, and Denver has the backs in C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles to take advantage. Keeping Brady off the field by grinding out first downs would be an added bonus. But if the Broncos turn the ball over and fall behind early like they have been, that plan goes out the window.
While there is a path to victory for Denver is you look really hard — play your usual great defense, pressure Tom Brady, run the ball to protect Brock Osweiler and hope to hit a big play or two — the Broncos are unlikely to find it. During their four-game skid, they’ve been outscored 79–15 in the first half and in fact haven’t scored a first-half touchdown. Can we really expect that to change against Brady, Bill Belichick and company?