Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Welcome to Season 6, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
Have to admit, I’m having a tough time gauging the degree of difficulty with this one. The Patriots, who are 6-2 and coming off their bye, travel to Denver to take on the Broncos, who are 4-5 and coming off their fourth straight loss, a 51-23 punishing on the road against the Eagles. The first of those losses came at home to the New York Giants, who may be the first team in NFL history to have its entire roster retire in unison midseason. The defeat of the Broncos is their lone win.
Theoretically, the rested Patriots should beat the Broncos without much suspense. While the Patriots have endured at least their share of injuries – receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder) is the latest member of the Receiver Attrition Brigade – they remain one of the deepest and most talented teams in the league. Denver? Well, they have sack machine and occasional Tom Brady tormentor Von Miller, old friend Aqib Talib … and yet they’ve given up 80 points over the past two weeks. There are some familiar names, but this group isn’t exactly reminiscent of the Orange Crush in its heyday. Let’s just say rookie coach Vance Joseph isn’t exactly having the time of his life lately.
Yet you surely know why the Patriots must always be wary of this trip, no matter the highs and lows of the circumstances at the moment for the teams involved. Playing in Denver is more of a survival mission than a challenge. The high altitude has an effect on even the most prepared teams. And the Patriots’ history suggests that a win on the road over Denver should never be counted before it is complete. The Patriots beat the Broncos in Denver last December, 16-3. But the Broncos won the three previous matchups at Sports Authority Field, including AFC Championship Game victories in the 2013 and 2015 seasons. Winning there is rarely easy, even on the occasions when it looks like it should be.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started …
Brock Osweiler: The Broncos’ quarterback situation is so grim that the common joke this week is that team president John Elway is their best option. I would mock this joke, but I suspect I’ve probably made it before, and more than once.
Besides, I think it goes deeper than this. The Broncos wouldn’t just be better off with the 57-year-old Hall of Famer. They’d be better off with various other assorted Broncos quarterbacks of the past, among them Kyle Orton, Jake Plummer, Steve Beuerlein, Brian Griese, Tommy Maddox, and quite possibly Mets minor-league roster- and seat-filler Tim Tebow. Definitely not Peyton Manning, though. He’s more cooked than a Papa John’s pizza.
Anyway, the quarterback the Broncos will go with this week is another blast from the past in Osweiler, who returns to Denver this season after a disastrous stint in Houston and a brief layover with his some fellow hapless football citizens in Cleveland.
He’s starting because Trevor Siemian, a former seventh-round pick out of Northwestern, is suddenly playing like a former seventh-round pick out of Northwestern, while former first-round pick Paxton Lynch can’t stay healthy long enough to prove competent.
Osweiler is not a good quarterback by any stretch. He made his first start of the season last week against the Eagles, completing half of his passes and throwing two interceptions to a single touchdown in a 28-point loss, so it went pretty much as expected. But I suppose, given the weird things that happen to the Patriots in Denver, that the visitors have to be at least somewhat wary of him.
He was Denver’s quarterback in its 30-24 overtime win against the Patriots in Week 12 of the 2015 season. And the Texans somehow managed to remain competitive for a half in their divisional playoff round loss to the Patriots last season despite having the handicap of having Osweiler directing their offense. I don’t expect him to play well Sunday. But then, we never have before, either. Still, Craig Morton would be a better option.
Martellus Bennett: It’s hard to imagine he’ll play Sunday night – he’s dealing with a shoulder injury that the Packers said would have kept him out this weekend had they not cut him Wednesday. There are probably a few new wrinkles in the playbook he could stand to learn, too, while reacquainting himself with what he knew last year.
But even if he doesn’t play soon, he’ll still remain tied in receptions for the Patriots this season with Dwayne Allen, his de facto replacement who is still looking for his first catch of the season. This is a no-lose pickup for the Patriots. They know the player, he knows them, and their history is a good one. While Bennett sometimes seems high-maintenance, probably because he is very adept at thinking for himself and articulately expressing those thoughts on a regular basis, the Patriots know how to handle such maintenance.
Bennett had 55 catches for 701 yards in the regular season last year while serving as a dependable blocker from the tight end position. He was a good fit here in every way. If he can get healthy, the Patriots have just picked up an asset for no cost other than cash.
James White: I usually howl for a bigger role for Dion Lewis in this space, but to the Patriots’ benefit that actually seems to be happening, so let’s salute another valuable member of their versatile running back group.
Am I wrong in suggesting White is having a Kevin Faulk-type of season? He has 43 catches – second in the NFL among running backs – for 365 yards and a touchdown. He’s also picked up 120 yards on 28 carries, a 4.3 average. While White isn’t the ballcarrier Faulk was – he rushed for more than 500 yards in a season three times – he might be a better receiver. Faulk’s career high in catches was 58 in 2008. White might surpass that in two weeks.
Of course, anything White does this season won’t be as reminiscent of Faulk as his two-point conversion on a direct snap to cut the Falcons lead to 28-20 with less than 6 minutes left in Super Bowl LI. Now that was a Kevin Faulk kind of play.
Thought about going with Von Miller’s Old Spice commercials here since they make the mistake of believing quirky/cutesy automatically equates to funny. They’re the Zooey Deschanel of armpit product commercials, I guess.
So let’s instead turn to Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe. He’s an effective player in that oversized-middle-school-bully sort of way who was an absolute menace in the AFC Championship Game two years ago. It’s a positive twist for the Patriots that he’s bothered by a neck injury (yes, he has one) and couldn’t practice Friday.
Tom Brady’s day will be a better one if he’s out Sunday. Not just because of Wolfe’s knack for playing well against the Patriots, but because of his obnoxious knack for celebrating his success.
During the 2015 AFC Championship Game, Wolfe told Tom Brady he was going to eat his kids. He is also presumed to be the anonymous Broncos lineman who later bragged that he tried to rub his groin in Brady’s face during that game. (Miller is also a suspect.)
The eat-his-kids thing isn’t so bad – he’s plagiarizing a Mike Tyson classic there. But the other deed? Gross. It’s a wonder Brady didn’t take a Silkwood shower for about 45 minutes after that game.
If it seems like the Patriots and Broncos meet during the regular season every year, it’s because they do, or have at least for the last seven years. This is the third straight year the game has been in Denver, which is just a quirk of the schedule-making protocol but is nevertheless annoying. The Patriots have played more games against the Broncos than any other team that has never been a division rival, with Denver winning 30 out of 52, playoffs included. This isn’t just a product of the pre-Belichick/Brady years, either. Brady is just 7-9 against Denver, including 1-3 in the playoffs? And Belichick? He’s 9-13 against Denver in his career, and 9-9 with the Patriots.
What do all of these relatively ominous statistics mean? Probably not much. The Patriots are the better team, and they should prevail. The stats are just a reminder that it is always a long trek to victory for even the most prepared and capable visitors to the Mile High City.
Patriots 27, Broncos 17.
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