Broncos vs. Patriots preview

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
The Denver Broncos visit the New England Patriots in the regular season for the third straight year. As usual, it’s one of the most highly anticipated games on the NFL schedule.

Why three regular-season matchups in a row in New England? It’s simply a result of the league’s rotating scheduling format.

And that rotation would call for the teams to meet again next year should they finish in the same spot in the division standings this season, a game that would be played in Denver.

Sunday’s game will mark the 16th time that quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off against each other, with Brady holding a 10-5 edge. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, this marks the first matchup in NFL history among opposing starting quarterbacks who had at least 150 career regular-season wins entering the game.

Elias also reports the 890 combined career passing touchdowns for Manning (513) and Brady (377) are the most combined career passing touchdowns for opposing starting quarterbacks in NFL history. The previous record was 818, held by Manning and Brady last season.

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the matchup.

Reiss: Jeff, welcome back to town. What are the most significant differences you see in the Broncos from the team the Patriots saw in last year’s AFC Championship Game?

Legwold: The biggest difference -- and it’s major -- will be in the team’s defense. Three players who started in the AFC Championship Game this past Jan. 19 will likely be in the starting lineup again this time around. The total would have been four had linebacker Danny Trevathan not reinjured his leg against the Arizona Cardinals, but it has been an extreme makeover. And it’s one where I think you can see John Elway’s experience as a quarterback coming through as a personnel executive. Elway didn’t want to put Manning in a situation in which "he feels like he has to do everything," and after a season when the Broncos scored more points than any team in league history, yet still didn’t win the Super Bowl, Elway went about the business of making the Broncos far more well-rounded, with more team speed across the board on both sides of the ball. Defensively, however, Von Miller’s return and DeMarcus Ware’s addition in free agency gives the Broncos two elite edge players on a defense that can play with far more versatility than it did in either meeting against the Patriots last season.

For all of the discussion about Tom Brady’s decline early in the season, what have you seen in his play and have the Patriots simply done a better job protecting him in the past four games?

Reiss: It was difficult to evaluate Brady in the first four weeks of the season because he was under so much duress. So I’d say the main difference since that time has been better protection, which has given the offense a chance to find a bit of an identity; they are an attack that leans toward multiple tight ends and two-back groupings. And make no mistake, the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski has been a big part of it, too. He was still being eased into the mix in the first four games of the season and he has since hit top form. What a difference that has made. Brady’s arm strength and mental acumen have not wavered. I think it's most accurate to say that that the parts around him are playing better.

Aqib Talib was well liked among teammates in New England. How would you describe how he’s fit in with the Broncos and what he has brought to the team?

Legwold: Again, Elway, the former quarterback, went on the hunt as a personnel executive for the type of cornerback he didn’t like to face when he played. And that is Talib, a physical, fearless player with length, good speed and instincts in coverage. That was their hope for Talib and that’s what he has brought. He has been a willing tackler in the run game and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has used him all over the formation. The Broncos had questions about Talib’s ability to stay healthy, given the way he plays and that he had never played 16 games in a season, but it has been so far, so good as Talib hasn’t even missed any practice time so far. He has allowed the Broncos to play three cornerbacks -- Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and rookie Bradley Roby -- in the nickel and still defend the run game against the more open formations the Broncos have seen. That has always been a sticking point in recent years, especially against the Patriots at times. The Broncos play perhaps more man coverage than any team in the league right now, so Talib gets isolated in tough matchups at times and has given up some catches in those don’t-touch-the-receiver times, but he has played well and the Broncos like his ability to compete every play. Overall, Talib has fit well in the locker room and seems to like the same kind of postseason aspirations in Denver that were prevalent in the Patriots’ locker room as well. He has said all the right things so far this week, but his teammates say he’d like to make a "remember when" play Sunday.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has usually had a wrinkle for the Broncos to digest in recent meetings, especially for the Broncos' defense, everything from the up-tempo look in 2012 to Aaron Hernandez lined up at running back in 2011. How do you think Belchick and Josh McDaniels will attack this year’s version of the Broncos' defense?

Reiss: When the Patriots have been at their best this season, they’ve established a threat of the running game to set-up play-action opportunities. So I’d start there, while also remembering how much they struggled in that area in the AFC Championship Game. They couldn’t block Terrance Knighton consistently on the interior, so when I think of their potential game plan, there will surely be wrinkles, but I think it’s more about basics and fundamentals and securing the line of scrimmage better than they did the last time these two teams met. The major wrinkles will probably come more on the defensive side.

The defection of Wes Welker is still a sore subject for some, in part because the projected replacement -- Danny Amendola -- hasn’t filled the role. Julian Edelman has, but Welker was a fan favorite here. How has Welker looked this season, and where does he fit into the overall offense?

Legwold: Certainly it hasn’t been the year Welker had hoped it would be thus far, beginning with a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs -- it was later reduced to two games when the new drug policy was approved by the league and the NFL Players Association -- to open the season. He also suffered a concussion in the preseason against the Houston Texans, and it was his third concussion since November. So in the early going, Welker has spent a lot of time answering questions about his suspension and whether he’s worried about his health because of the concussions. Toss in the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas in the offense, and Welker hasn’t seen the ball all that much with 19 catches, on 24 targets, in his five games. He has six catches in the past three games combined. That said, Manning continues to go to him in some key third-down situations, including against the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and against the San Diego Chargers last week. But he has been a specialist of sorts in Denver this season. Each of the Broncos' receivers has had a marquee game this season as Manning continues to work the ball all over the formation, and Welker is due for his. But to this point he’s a distant fourth in targets and has just eight more catches than running back Ronnie Hillman, who has started just three games.

In the end, it’s hard to get away from the Brady-Manning storyline. They are, and will always be, the biggest names on the marquee in this matchup. But beyond the future Hall of Famers, what’s the one thing the Patriots must do to win this game?

Reiss: Establish control of the line of scrimmage and good things will happen for the Patriots. It’s so basic, I know, but that’s really been the top story of the Patriots’ season to me. They couldn’t get where they wanted to go until they figured out things along the offensive line and they seem to have done that, but now comes a stiff test against Knighton and dynamic pass rushers Miller and Ware. On defense, they haven’t been stout against the run while playing sub defense, and they’ll need to create more resistance than they did last year.
Bill Belichick often talks about the importance of complementary football, so his choices for the team's plays of the week as part of his breakdown on the team's official website weren't a big surprise.

While focusing on the sequence at the end of the second quarter when the New England Patriots turned a 17-7 lead over the Bears into a 38-7 edge in short time, Belichick singled out:

1. Gray's running. With 4:02 remaining, running back Jonas Gray powered right for 17 yards while picking up blocks from tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui (YY wing), as well as right tackle Marcus Cannon. "I thought he ran really hard for us here,” Belichick said, noting it was a big part of a scoring drive to move the ball to midfield.

2. Play-action creates space. Belichick pointed out all the space in the middle of the field on Brandon LaFell's 17-yard catch, which was set up by play-action. "There's no way you could drop back without having the defenders drop into some kind of zones here and have this much space. The play-action really creates a good window for Tom [Brady]," he said.

3. Isolating Gronkowski's matchup. On Gronkowski's 2-yard touchdown catch, Belichick highlighted how Hoomanawanui split out wide to the right side and drew safety Ryan Mundy, which led Gronkowski to then split out wide to the opposite side, where linebacker Shea McClellin aligned over him. "That's another good matchup," Belichick said. "Tom found that."

4. Slater's recognition on ensuing kickoff. Belichick then showed the end-zone angle of the ensuing kickoff, which captured part of what makes special teams captain Matthew Slater a top player. His recognition of the blocking scheme helped thwart the return, pinning the Bears deep in their own territory.

5. Ayers' sack draws notice. After pinning the Bears deep, a sack by Akeem Ayers on second-and-6 came as a result of a strong inside rush by Jamie Collins and an initial corner blitz by Logan Ryan. Then Ayers cleaned it up. "We turned that field position into a negative play," Belichick said. "Nice job by Akeem coming in last week. First game, he picked it up pretty quickly. Worked hard."

6. Hustle plays by Gray and Slater on punt return. After the Patriots forced a three-and-out on defense, Julian Edelman's 42-yard punt return was reviewed, with Belichick noting Gray drawing a holding penalty and then hustling back to deliver a key block along with Slater. The punt return unit set up a wall and Edelman took it wide to the left side.

7. Two tight ends draw attention to open up outside. On LaFell's 9-yard touchdown catch, Belichick pointed out how the Bears show a blitz, and then the safeties cheated down on the tight ends over the middle. That left the outside open. "It's really one-on-one outside to LaFell -- great throw, catch," Belichick said.

8. Strip sack and scoop and score adds to lead. A strong inside rush by Dont'a Hightower helped break the pocket as Hightower wrapped up Jay Cutler, who then brought the ball up in an area where security was compromised. "[Zach] Moore kind of hits him from the back, [Dominique] Easley hits him from the front, gets his hand, pulls the ball out," Belichick said, noting the quick reactions of multiple defenders, led by Rob Ninkovich who raced 15 yards for a touchdown.

"It was a great sequence of big plays in all three phases of the game," Belichick said. "Being able to score 21 points in a minute that really changed the complexion of the game."

Cousin Sal makes his picks for week 9 in the NFL.

Bruschi's Breakdown: Pats-Broncos

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
[+] EnlargeManning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyWith Terrance Knighton (left) anchoring the D and a record-setting Peyton Manning directing the O, the Broncos look like the best team in the NFL.

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's the highly anticipated AFC showdown between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET).

Mike: Football fans in New England have been treated to a lot of big games over the years. From a regular-season standpoint, this one ranks right up there. These teams know each other well, almost like they've been in the same division these last few years.

Tedy: Yes, and I'm sure both teams went back and watched last season's AFC title game, to become familiar with it again. And the regular-season game last year too, and then you compare the two and ask questions like 'What changes did they make? What changes did we make? What worked the best?' That's a big part of the preparations this week.

Mike: Patriots players echoed that in the locker room over the last couple of days. Before we get into some of the X's and O's, and what some of those things are, what stands out to you from a general sense with the Broncos?

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ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discusses the importance of the Broncos' young backfield being able to hold on to the ball against the Patriots.
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."

Injury report: Four Patriots remain limited

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Recently signed veteran defensive lineman Alan Branch did not participate in practice on Thursday, though the team said it was not injury related.

The rest of the New England Patriots' injury report remained unchanged from Wednesday.

Defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) is still not participating in practices.

The limited participants are rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee), rookie offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (finger) and core special teamers Nate Ebner (finger) and Matthew Slater (shoulder).

Quarterback Tom Brady (ankle), cornerback Brandon Browner (ankle) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) remain full participants in practice.


ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses how a windy forecast could favor the Patriots on Sunday.

The NFL Live crew make their picks for Denver at New England.

Matthew Berry discusses the running back he loves and hates for Week 9.

Vince Wilfork on Broncos: 'The best of the best'

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — You don’t have to tell New England Patriots defensive captain Vince Wilfork how challenging Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos is going to be. He’s fully aware of the task at hand.

"They’re the best of the best,” Wilfork said. “Do everything well. One of the best quarterbacks in history we’ve got to face. He doesn’t make it easy. He wants to make sure that they’re in the perfect play every snap. They’re so tough to defend. We have to play our A-plus game to be successful. Anything other than that, we’re going to have problems.”

[+] EnlargeWilfork
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky"We have to play our A-plus game to be successful," Vince Wilfork said of facing the Broncos. "Anything other than that, we're going to have problems."
The problems for the Patriots' defense only start with Peyton Manning. In addition to the future Hall of Famer at quarterback, the Broncos have explosive receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, a dangerous red zone threat at tight end in Julius Thomas, and a speedy running back on a recent tear in Ronnie Hillman. Combine that with an aggressive defense and solid special-teams play and you’ve got what Wilfork described as the most complete team in the NFL.

“When you draw up a perfect football team, you draw up the Denver Broncos all-around -- special-teams, offense and defense,” Wilfork said. “They do a real good job of getting the ball back to their offense and they do a real good job putting the ball in the end zone. We have to play well everywhere, not just in certain areas. It’s going to be the run game, it’s going to be the pass game, it’s going to be everything. We have to do a real good job because they’re great at everything.”

Such has been the prevailing sentiment among players this week as the Broncos figure to give the Patriots their toughest matchup of the season. With the defense still trying to find a consistent identity after the loss of both Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones, Wilfork talked about the importance of new linebacker additions Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas fitting in to help fill the void.

“Every week it’s just one of those things you just have to get more comfortable in playing,” Wilfork said. “Just continue to get better. Know the game plan, know the situation, know what we’re trying to do and just execute to the highest level.”

Set up on the defensive line, Wilfork figures to have his hands full both putting pressure on Manning and containing Hillman from getting into open space. To do that, Wilfork, as he does each week, discussed the importance of the defense making the tackles they need to make when the opportunity arises.

“They know where they want to run the ball, they know how they want to move the ball. So it’s going to be a challenge for us to defend everywhere -- passing game, running game, outside, inside, you name it,” Wilfork said. “Everybody is going to have to put in their tackles. There’s really nothing you can do about it but just practice and prepare for it and try to execute your game plan. Hopefully you can slow them down just enough to where we can be successful."

Although the defense will be put to the test against the Broncos' top-scoring offense, Wilfork and the rest of the team understand that Denver is beatable.

“We’re going to have to be a real good football team this week. It starts on the practice field with us and just make sure that we take care of what we need to take care of. And hopefully it’s good enough,” Wilfork said.

Patriots shuffle practice squad roster

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots announced Thursday that they re-signed offensive lineman Chris Barker to the practice squad. The team released defensive lineman Ben Bass to make room for Barker.

Barker was on the Patriots’ practice squad until the team promoted him to the 53-man roster on Oct. 1 to provide depth on an offensive line that was dealing with injuries to Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming. Barker did not play in the game against the Jets and was inactive against the Bears.

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Barker is in his second NFL season and was released on Oct. 28 to make room for new linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal with Tampa Bay.

Barker participated in the team’s practice on Thursday.

While the Patriots have all 10 practice-squad spots currently filled, it is possible the team will bring back linebacker Deontae Skinner, which means they will need to release one player.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Skinner was released on Wednesday to open up a 53-man roster spot for veteran defensive lineman Alan Branch.

Skinner, a rookie free agent out of Mississippi State who started on the practice squad, was signed to the Patriots’ 53-man roster on Sept. 13. He played in seven games, including one start, and notched 10 total tackles and three special-teams tackles.

Patriots practice squad:
OL Chris Barker
DE Jake Bequette
WR Josh Boyce
LB Ja'Gared Davis
LB Darius Fleming
OL Caylin Hauptmann
WR Jonathan Krause
DL Kona Schwenke
DB Daxton Swanson
DL Joe Vellano

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson discusses the rejection of Aaron Hernandez's bid to have his trial moved to a different county.

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando delivers stats to help you make a pick for Denver at New England.

Boston teams/athletes remember Menino

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
Thomas Menino;Mike Lowell;Pedro Martinez;Jason Varitek;Leon Powe;Tedy Bruschi;Troy Brown;Ty Law;Mark RecchiWinslow Townson/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesFormer Boston mayor Thomas Menino (left) will be missed by Boston's athletes and teams.
Boston’s athletes, team owners and executives joined the rest of the community Thursday in mourning the death of Thomas Menino, the longest-tenured mayor in the city’s history.

Menino understood sports’ place in the fabric of Boston and was appreciated by all of the city’s franchises.

What follows is a sampling of their remembrances and condolences:

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