In recent years, the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have been the class of the AFC. But while the Patriots and 40-year-old Tom Brady enter Sunday riding a four-game winning streak, Brock Osweiler and the Broncos have lost four in a row, including a 51-23 beatdown by the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
Sunday’s showdown at Mile High Stadium will be a tough test for both teams. On one hand, the Patriots may be 6-2, but injuries and a lack of execution in the red zone have shown that Bill Belichick and Brady are beatable. The Broncos have been completely inept on offense and desperately need a win to keep any chances of capturing a Wild Card spot alive.
Here are five bold predictions for the Patriots-Broncos matchup.
Rob Gronkowski will post his second multi-touchdown game of the season
Though the perennial Pro Bowler is on pace for good but not great numbers, there is no doubt that Rob Gronkowski has been the most dangerous offensive weapon on a team that has seen injuries take a toll in the first half. Currently on pace for 68 catches for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns, Gronkowski has not exactly been the touchdown machine we have grown accustomed to seeing since he stepped foot on an NFL field in 2010. In fact, the Patriots have strangely struggled to turn long drives into seven points, especially in the red zone. That will change Sunday.
Denver does boast an elite cornerback trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby, but their linebackers and safeties are simply not up to par when it comes to covering No. 87. Tight ends have consistently burned the Broncos in 2017 to the tune of 47 catches (fourth-most in NFL) for 623 yards (second). Gronkowski has routinely torched the Broncos, racking up 30/371/3 in five career matchups. With extra time to sort out their red-zone issues, expect the Patriots to make a concerted effort to get their talented tight end involved near the goal line.
James White will lead the team in receptions
Given the injury to Chris Hogan, it will be tough for the Patriots to get a whole lot going in the passing game. Brandin Cooks will likely face constant double-teams from some combination of Talib/Harris plus a safety. So while this matchup certainly favors Denver, that could leave an opportunity for Super Bowl hero James White to have a major impact as a pass-catcher.
New England’s reception leader has built on his breakout performance and become a focal point on offense. White is certainly not an elite athlete, yet he always finds a way to get open right when Brady needs to get rid of the ball. That skill will be needed on Sunday, as Von Miller and the rest of Denver’s front seven will look make life miserable for Brady. Considering the quality of Denver’s pass rush and New England’s inconsistent tackle play, it would be smart for Brady to look for White early and often. Do not be surprised to see White lead the team in catches and do damage in the open field.
Patriots will hold the Broncos to fewer than 300 yards of total offense
It is impossible to overlook their slow start, but the fact remains that the Patriots have been markedly better on defense during their four-game winning streak. Since embarrassing themselves on opening night against the Kansas City Chiefs and getting dismantled by Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton, New England has buckled down even with free-agent corner Stephon Gilmore on the sidelines due to a concussion. In their last four games, the Patriots have surrendered just 51 points while cutting down the number of coverage busts and miscommunications.
This upward-trending defense now gets a tasty matchup against Osweiler and the inept Denver offense. Head coach Vance Joseph has shuffled between The Heist and Trevor Siemian and the results have not been pretty. The Broncos rank 22nd in points per game (18.8) and 30th in quarterback rating (73.5). Meanwhile, the Patriots should get back Gilmore, who despite a poor start, certainly has the talent to match up with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. New England defenses always clamp down later in the season, so expect Matt Patricia to show some new wrinkles against an overmatched offense.
Stephon Gilmore will record his first interception since Week 3
Speaking of Gilmore, the highly criticized offseason addition has been MIA the past month. After finally putting together a good performance in Week 5 against Mike Evans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gilmore has been inactive with a concussion. However, the former first-round pick is expected to suit up Sunday, which would provide a nice boost to a secondary that has been much improved in recent weeks.
Considering how his replacement, Johnson Bademosi, has played, Gilmore should be plenty motivated to step up in the second half of the season. The long-limbed, speedy corner excels in man coverage, and having the chance to match up against the physically gifted Thomas should be right in his wheelhouse. Look for Gilmore to make a big play and record his first interception since Week 3 against the turnover-prone Osweiler
Trey Flowers will have his first multi-sack game since the season opener
Sacks do not always tell the whole story. And in the case of Trey Flowers, his 3.5 sacks do not do justice in showing just how disruptive and impactful he has been in 2017. The long-armed, physical defensive lineman ranks fourth on the team with 37 total tackles and has accounted for half of New England’s total quarterback pressures. Oh, and he has done all this while getting virtually zero rest, as he has played 91.3 percent of the defensive snaps. The next closest defensive lineman? Lawrence Guy at 55.7 percent.
Though Flowers has consistently hit and hurried quarterbacks, he has failed to register a sack in three straight games. There might not be a better cure for the versatile defender than facing one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Denver has allowed 28 sacks and currently ranks 27th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. The bye week should have given Flowers a chance to get fresh for the second half, and Sunday will be the start of his mission to get to double-digit sacks.