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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As a fifth-year defensive back, Devin McCourty knows better than to try to outsmart Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

The fact of the matter is you simply can't.

"I would say the chess game is pretty one-sided," McCourty said. "It's like being a kid going against a father in chess. He's a very smart quarterback. He knows what he wants to do.

"Most the time he knows what the defense is in, so if what he had planned isn't going to work, he's going to get the offense in something else. I think that's what you see out there on the field and I think a lot of times people talk about trying to know what's in his head and know what he's trying to do, but he's really just going off us. We end up in something at the last minute, he knows and then he goes to something else."

That will be the challenge Sunday when the New England Patriots host Manning and the Broncos. McCourty is familiar with the challenge the Broncos present. He was on the field against them twice last season, when Denver set several NFL records for offense.

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDevin McCourty, right, knows the Patriots will have the hands full in trying to contain Julius Thomas and the Broncos' receivers.
"It's probably the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL last year, and then you bring most of those weapons back this year and then add [wide receiver] Emmanuel Sanders," McCourty said. "I guess you can go back and forth and debate, but the offense is probably a little better than it was last year, and it was easily the best offense in the NFL last year."

Things don't figure to be easy. Manning looks like he has only gotten better with age. Tied for the league-lead in touchdown passes with 22, he'll surely present McCourty and the rest of the secondary with their toughest challenge of the season in terms of matching up against a quarterback.

"I feel like it's another year, same story going against Peyton," McCourty said. "He's getting the ball where it needs to be, either vertical or short. Whatever the defense gives him, he takes full advantage of it. There's not much you can do that he doesn't know."

And then there are Manning's receivers. Along with Sanders, enjoying a career season after four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos have another premier option in Demaryius Thomas at receiver. Add in a top touchdown target in tight end Julius Thomas and old friend Wes Welker, and the Patriots find themselves in similar territory as last week, when they faced the Chicago Bears' triumvirate of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.

"It's kind of like we talked about a little bit last week, where there's going to be times where we're just going to have to go cover the guys," McCourty said. "Same as last week, you can't double everybody. They have a lot of weapons [that] on other teams they'd be the star guy where you just double him and defend everybody else. You can go down the line with all those guys that are out there. You can't do that, even if you do choose to double one, [Manning is] going to find it and throw to somebody else.

"It's going to come down to a lot of matchups one-on-one where you've just got to try and make a play. Obviously you go by their numbers and their games -- they've made a fair share of those plays and the defense really hasn't. We're going to have to just go out there and compete. That' s the thing when you play in these type of games. It's just going to come down to competing. You go against great players, they're going to make some plays. But we've got to try to make ours, too."

Competing served the Patriots secondary well against the Bears, as they were able to hold their top three options to two touchdowns and less than 200 yards receiving combined. However, Manning isn't Jay Cutler, making this Sunday's test all the more difficult.

Like the kid going against the father in chess, the Patriots defense can only do their best to keep pace. From there, they can look for their best chance to check Manning.

After all, it's the checkmate that matters in the end.

"You've just got to go out there and play," McCourty said. "I don't think we can overthink and try to outsmart ourselves by trying to go move for move with him and check for check, because he does a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage.

"You don't really want to be out there guessing. We just want to go out there and try to play competitive throughout the down."
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In in the end, it’s the minds that matter.

Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Again.

Sunday will be the 23rd time, as either a head coach or defensive coordinator, Belichick has faced Manning. The 23rd time the matchup coach, the guy who has been more successful than most at taking away what you do best, has faced the matchup quarterback.

Former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley has always said Manning works every play to the open guy. He doesn’t play favorites, that "if you’re the matchup, the open guy, you get the ball."

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick and Peyton Manning
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBill Belichick said this week that Peyton Manning was the best quarterback he has ever faced as a coach.
Manning was asked this week if he thought deep down Belichick, who is 12-10 when facing Manning as a coordinator or head coach, might be tired of facing Manning after all these years.

"I don’t know. I can’t speak for that, but somebody was asking me if I ever see the schedule come out and say, 'boy, I wish we didn’t have to play them again,' but in reality they’re always winning the division, they’re always there, and so ... you’re going to play them," Manning said. "... The main reason we’ve played them so many times is because we’ve won the division the year before also. So it’s a challenging consequence of being a good team the year before, that’s what you want. You want to win the division, it gives you the chance to get in the playoffs, gives you the chance to win a world championship. That’s kind of your goal every year."

Through the years, Belichick, who is 10-5 against Manning with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback, has routinely chosen coverage over pressure with Manning. The Patriots have often filled the passing lanes with defenders dropping into coverage and hoped a four-, three- or sometimes even a two-man rush on a smattering of snaps can get there if Manning has to consistently go deeper into his progressions.

Last November, on a cold blustery night in Foxborough, Mass., Manning threw for 150 yards -- his lowest output of his record-setting 2013 season -- and was sacked twice as the Broncos chose to run the ball plenty against defensive sets with so many defenders off the line of scrimmage and in coverage. The Broncos ran for 280 yards, 224 of those from Knowshon Moreno. But in the end the Broncos could not protect a 24-0 lead, losing 34-31 in overtime.

Manning sees the same attention to detail in the Patriots' defense this time around, even with the Patriots missing Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is now on injured reserve with a right knee injury suffered during an Oct. 12 victory in Buffalo. New England also played this past Sunday’s win against the Chicago Bears without defensive lineman Chandler Jones, who suffered a hip injury in the Patriots' Oct. 16 win against the New York Jets.

"That’s why Bill’s been so successful is they’ve done a tremendous job," Manning said. "They’ve taken a 'next-man-up' philosophy. They’ve lost some key components to their defense and plugged guys in and done a terrific job. They’re not giving up explosive plays. They’re high both in scoring offense and scoring defense, and part of that is pass rush. It’s just pass defense as a whole."

For Manning, it always means patience is a key. Belichick tends to try to take away a quarterback’s favorite routes, favorite receivers, and make him put the ball into the hands of others. That means the Patriots will try to limit the Broncos’ bread-and-butter crossing routes with plenty of attention given to receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

The make-somebody-else-beat-you philosophy usually makes someone else in the offense make the plays that make the difference. Last season it was Moreno, with a career night, who almost pushed the Broncos over the top.

In the AFC Championship Game, in Denver, this past January, the Patriots' secondary, especially after Aqib Talib left the game, wasn’t up to the challenge as Manning remained on schedule in his reads and finished with 400 yards passing, with 134 of those going to Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos believe they have enough depth, with Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders capable of 100-yard games -- Sanders has two this season, to go with a three-touchdown game -- if that's what it takes to end the Patriots long home winning streak (33 regular-season games in a row) against AFC opponents.

"When you’ve got Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, two first-ballot Hall of Famers in my eyes, those guys are definitely winners and going at home with the crowd and the environment, it’s definitely a tough place to play," said Sanders. "But at the same time, we’ve got to go out there. We’ve got to handle business. We’ve got to go out there and execute at a high level, we’ve got to be assignment-detailed, we’ve got to be physical."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos had things back in order along the offensive line Thursday.

Guard Louis Vasquez, who was sent home ill Wednesday shortly after noon, was back on the practice field Thursday, working with the starters. Vasquez was limited in the practice, but head coach John Fox said Vasquez was “feeling better.’’

Running back Ronnie Hillman, who suffered a shoulder injury in Wednesday’s practice, also took part in Thursday’s practice and the Broncos officially listed him as limited on the day. Hillman said he expects to play Sunday against the New England Patriots.

In last November’s meeting between the two teams the Broncos ran the ball 48 times, 37 of those from Knowshon Moreno.

Also, linebacker Lamin Barrow (concussion) and linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle) were limited in practice, as was tight end Virgil Green (calf). Defensive back Omar Bolden, who suffered a concussion against the San Francisco 49ers, was cleared for full participation in practice.

That means Bolden could make an appearance as the kickoff returner against the Patriots.

Running back Montee Ball (groin) and safety Quinton Carter (hamstring) did not participate, but did work with the team’s strength and conditioning staff off to the side.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He has played in the two highest-scoring offenses in league history.

He's had a 16-catch game in his career and he's had more 100-catch seasons -- five -- than anyone who has caught passes in the league's history.

Yet as the Denver Broncos have rolled out to a 6-1 start, again with the league's highest-scoring offense, there are times when wide receiver Wes Welker's role has been almost ornamental. His 19 catches are his lowest total over the first seven games of a season since 2005. Back then Welker was a Miami Dolphins wide receiver who had 16 receptions over the first seven games -- a far cry from a key piece in the 2007 New England Patriots offense as well as the 2013 Broncos.

[+] EnlargeWelker
AP Photo/Jack DempseyIn five games this season, Wes Welker has just 19 receptions for 181 yards.
"Yeah it's definitely been different, for sure," Welker said. "Would I want the ball more? Yes. As long as we're winning games and we're being productive on offense and doing those things, I'm good with however we get that done. It's kind of strange being, I feel like, the weak link of our offense. If I'm the weak link, we're going to be OK."

The season has been a bumpy ride thus far for Welker. It started with a concussion in the preseason game against the Houston Texans, Welker's third concussion since last November, followed by a suspension for a violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. The suspension was initially for four games, but was reduced to two when the NFL and the NFL Players Association approved a new drug policy.

Others have stepped up this season. Julius Thomas had seven of his nine touchdown catches over the Broncos' first four games, Emmanuel Sanders had three 100-yard efforts in the first four games and Demaryius Thomas has four consecutive 100-yard games.

That, and the Broncos' desire to play out of a two-tight end set more often, have left Welker as a bit player at times. He had one catch, for 8 yards and a first down, in the Broncos' win over the New York Jets to go with two receptions for 5 yards in the win over the San Diego Chargers last week.

"Wes is far, far from the weak link in the offense," Sanders said. "The thing is, it could be anybody's day on any given Sunday. Wes just hasn't had his opportunity. But I remember when you guys were saying [Demaryius Thomas] was not being as productive and things of that sort, and I came out and I said, 'Look, Demaryius can go off in any game for 200 yards' and that next game, he went out for 200 yards. So that's the same thing with Wes. Wes can go out for three touchdowns and have a big game versus any opponent. I feel like it's going to click for him pretty soon."

Welker would likely like "pretty soon" to be this weekend. The Broncos (6-1) will face the New England Patriots (6-2), Welker's former team, on Sunday in Gillette Stadium. Welker's exit from New England was somewhat messy before he signed a two-year deal with the Broncos.

Of the four primary pass-catchers for the Broncos -- the two Thomases, Sanders and Welker -- Welker moves around the formation the least. Welker most often plays out of the slot, and Julius Thomas has been the preferred matchup in the middle of the field. And quarterback Peyton Manning meticulously throws to the coverage without forcing the ball to any of the receivers.

Demaryius Thomas has said "any week it could be your week," and Welker was asked this week if he believed Manning wanted to find a way to get him the ball more against the Patriots.

"Not necessarily; I don't want him to feel that way either," Welker said. "I just want him to go play his game and whoever's open is open and whenever we need to score touchdowns, that's the way I want it to be. I'm not going to put any pressure on him or anything else, [saying] 'Hey, I really need the ball because I'm playing my old team,' or anything like that. I just want to go out there and whatever we need to do to win the game, that's first and foremost for me. Hopefully I make some plays along the way, but however that happens is how it happens."

Last season Welker had four catches for 31 yards in the Broncos' regular-season loss to the Patriots (a Nov. 24 game the Broncos had led 24-0 at halftime) to go with four catches for 38 yards in the Broncos' win in the AFC Championship Game.

"I like the way Wes Welker works at football," Manning said. "He loves it, another football junkie, gym rat, whatever you want to call it that loves football, loves to work. You can't tell him, 'Hey, that's enough, we're going to stop.' He wants to do one more, one more, one more."

Welker said he feels more "comfortable" going back to play against New England this time around and that "I'm just so excited about the opportunity and a big game like this."
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With Montee Ball having missed three games with a groin injury he suffered earlier this month, any injury to Ronnie Hillman would be an attention-grabber for the Denver Broncos.

Hillman
And Hillman was limited in Wednesday's practice with a shoulder injury he suffered during the workout. However, later Wednesday afternoon, Hillman said he expected to practice Thursday and remained on track to again be the team's lead option at running back Sunday against the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

"I just landed on it funny, it'll be all right," Hillman said following Wednesday's practice.

Asked if he had any concern he wouldn't be able to play in the showdown with the Patriots, Hillman said:

"No, I'm not, I'll be at practice (Thursday). So, I mean, I plan on being at practice (Thursday). I don't know what they're talking about. But I'll be fine. It's nothing that I can't deal with."

Hillman has helped give the Broncos run game a boost over the last three games. The third-year running back has two 100-yard games in those last three outings and has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in the three starts.

Rookie Juwan Thompson, who briefly left the game against the Arizona Cardinals with a knee injury before he returned in the second half, has been the team's No. 2 back since Ball's injury.

Thompson has missed some practice time since the injury, but has played in the last three games and leads the team in rushing touchdowns with three.

"(The Patriots) are clicking," Hillman said. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens when we get out there … but we know we have to be on our game, no mistakes."
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos All-Pro guard Louis Vasquez did not practice Wednesday. He was the only starter who played in last week's game against the San Diego Chargers who did not participate in the workout.

Vasquez
Broncos head coach John Fox said Vasquez was ill.

Vasquez, who has had some back and rib issues this season, had practiced Monday. Vasquez left the Broncos' suburban complex shortly after noon.

Vasquez is the third Broncos' player and second offensive lineman sent home this week because of illness. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe and left guard Orlando Franklin, who were held out of Monday's practice because of illness, were back on the field Wednesday and took their usual snaps.

"This time of year it happens with all NFL teams, our training staff, our medical staff do a great job," Fox said following Wednesday's practice. "We got a couple guys back, lost another one today, but all in all I think we'll be fine."

Hillman
Running back Ronnie Hillman was limited with a shoulder injury he suffered during practice. Hillman stayed on the field and did some work in drills the rest of the way. Hillman is the Broncos' No. 1 back these days with Montee Ball out.

"He just landed funny," Fox said of Hillman.

Defensive back Omar Bolden, who had been under the concussion protocol last week, returned to practice Wednesday. Linebacker Lamin Barrow, who suffered a concussion against the Chargers in last Thursday's win, worked with the team's strength and conditioning coaches during practice, as did Ball and safety Quinton Carter.

Ball, who suffered a right groin injury in the Broncos' Oct. 5 win against the Arizona Cardinals, has not yet returned for practice.

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