Just three games remain on the schedule for the Patriots, and for the third and final time this year, they find themselves on prime time in their other notable house of horrors in the form of Mile High Stadium. Dating back to the formation of the franchise, the Patriots have a staggering 21 losses in Denver, featuring a streak of 11 straight losses from 1969 to 1997, then, of course, the two AFC Championship losses in 2013 and 2015, with a Brock Osweiler loss stuck in the middle. So yeah, safe to say I don't have many fond memories of the Patriots playing a litteral mile high.
Regardless, New England catches this Denver team in an interesting predicament. Still in the mix for a playoff spot at 7-7, and with the Chargers and Raiders on deck, they can technically come back and win the AFC West but are more realistically looking simply to make the playoffs at this juncture. They also enter Week 16, losing two of their last three to a couple of playoff contenders, the Lions and Texans (pre-C.J. Stroud Injury), by a combined score of 64-34. I could think of worse stretches to end the year though.
Meanwhile, the Patriots will again be shorthanded offensively without Juju Smith-Schuster and Rhamondre Stevenson, but even more notable is that they'll also be without Jabrill Peppers. The backbone of this defense all year long is dealing with a hamstring issue, which is yet another massive blow to this Patriots secondary, already down Christian Gonzalez, Marcus Jones, and J.C. Jackson. So, what are the Patriots chances of prematurely ending Denver's season? Let's find out.
Date: Sunday, December 24
Start Time: 8:15 EST
Location: Denver Colorado
Stadium: Mile High Stadium
TV Info: NFL Network and ABC for those who are local (Rich Eisen and Kurt Warner on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: White Tops, Blue Pants (Broncos wearing Color Rush Orange with the 'snowcap' helmets)
Players Already Ruled Out Before Sunday
Denver Broncos: Nik Bonitto (EDGE), Greg Dulcich (TE), Alex Palczewski (OT)
New England Patriots: Jabrill Peppers (SAF), Juju Smith-Schuster (WR), Rhamondre Stevenson (RB)
I think no matter what happens these last three weeks, the lasting impression of this Broncos defense will be the 70 points they gave up in Miami, allowing touchdowns on 8-of-10 possessions to kick off that day, Miami scoring just twice off of turnovers the entire game. Since then, the numbers on the whole still aren't the best, but Denver has been unequivocally better since that monstrosity of a performance.
Splitting their season into halves, they've allowed 80 fewer total yards per game, nearly 12 fewer points, and 3.5 fewer first-down conversions in their most recent seven games than in their first seven. Note that the Miami game overinflated things a bit, but that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes.
As far as guys to watch out for, the buck starts and stops with Pat Surtain, who the Broncos notably took over Justin Fields back in 2021. Since then, he's only gone on to be a consensus top-three corner in football from very early on in his career, and this year has been no different. Well...save for last week in Detroit, where he had some rough reps against Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jamo Williams, and even Sam LaPorta, but he's as good as it gets at that position. I wouldn't expect a ton of clean looks for DeVante Parker, with that in mind.
Elsewhere, you have former BC Eagle Justin Simmons, who's been as lights out as it gets at the safety spot since he turned pro, another Boston College alum in Zach Allen, and young edge rusher Jonathon Cooper. I would mention Nik Bonitto as well, who leads the Broncos with 7.5 sacks, but he's officially out this week with a knee injury. Still, having Allen on the interior will provide problems; he looked good against New England last year when he was still with the Arizona Cardinals.
Russell Wilson: Mr. Unlimited, the Broncos Country Meme guy, High Knees on a Plane at Cruising Altitude Enthusiast, Ciara's husband/Bane of Future's existence (that new album with Metro is going to hit like a Mack Truck by the way), and anger outburst outlet for Sean Payton. Although he's still not at the level he was at during his peak in Seattle, it would have been hard to out due how bad he was in 2022, and luckily for Denver fans, that hasn't been the case. A big reason is the connection between him and Courtland Sutton. A 1000-yard campaign could prove tough at this stage, but his 10 touchdowns this year are already a career-high, and he has a chance to double his previous best of six still. As far as the big-bodied outside receiver archetype goes, Sutton plays that role perfectly, and he's been a massive threat throughout 2023.
Elsewhere, you look at guys like Jerry Juedy, who I've long been a fan of, and receiving back Samaje Perine being massive contributors this season. Perine specifically was some money well spent by Denver this last offseason. He ranks 10th among running backs in receptions, seventh in receiving yards, and third in yards per reception. Javonte Williams, meanwhile, has looked solid in his first season back from a torn ACL, but he'll likely be facing an uphill battle against this Patriots run defense.
One thing that I want to make note of is something I heard around sunset on Friday from Greg Bedard filling in for Felger&Mazz, which was the idea (and I'm slightly paraphrasing things here) that Sean Payton wants to treat drives like the CFL (three downs instead of four), because he doesn't like Russ on third downs, at least according to someone he spoke to. So, offensive playcalling will be something I'm looking at very carefully now to start this game for Denver to see if that holds weight, which I think it does for the record.
New England Patriots
Without Jabrill Peppers, this will probably be the time Marte Mapu gets some real run. Funny enough, the Patriots released some mic'd-up footage from the Chiefs game, and Kyle Dugger took grave offense to the rookie being called a linebacker over the PA system, mentioning that he's played "three times as many safety snaps". Well, looking at the numbers from Taylor Kyles (via PFF), that's surprisingly inaccurate, at least to me.
So now, with Peppers gone for at least Sunday, I think you'll probably see a committee approach to replacing him with Mapu and Jalen Mills. Ultimately, this is a great outcome for Mapu, just to get live reps in and continue to get a better feel for things, Mills deserves the extra workload after his excellent work on Travis Kelce last week.
The current big worry about this defensive game plan is how the Patriots will cover Sutton. While Christian Gonzalez would have been a great option here, given his size and frame, their options now are pretty much down to Alex Austin, who matches up better from a size standpoint, or Jonathan Jones, who's giving up a ton of size but is the better cover option. Personally, I'd like to see Austin on Sutton, Bryant in the slot no matter what, then Jon Jones on the opposite boundary,
Bonus Points for the Alpinestars hat as the resident TDT Media Motorsports guy.
Neutralizing opposing running games is largely why this Patriots' defense has been as good as they've been. After holding the Chiefs to a dismal 43 yards on the ground, they've held opposing offenses to less than 85 rushing yards in 8 of their last 9, and 9-of-12. The Broncos have meanwhile hit that 85 yards marker all but thrice this season, and the key matchup to watch up front in the run game is going to be Christian Barmore when he lines up against Broncos' right guard Quinn Meinerz, the fighting pride of D3 Powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater. He's been one of the best-run-blocking interior offensive linemen in the league this year, and Barmore has been...well, Barmore. So, if you're looking for one matchup to watch in this one, that would be it.
I mean, I don't know what much I can say about this offense at this point other than I think Hunter Henry (if he plays) and Pop Douglas could be in line for a nice finish to the season. It's not that I think this offense won't be able to score More so that unless another team messes up to such a degree (so basically the Jets that last week of the season), it'll probably not be enough. That said, the Broncos are/should probably clamp down on the run and force Bailey Zappe into some mistakes. Kansas City set a pretty good blueprint together for their last three opponents, one that the Broncos, Bills, and Jets would be wise to take inspiration from.
For Zappe's sake, he has to have a good second-half performance this week, if not for this season, just to give the Patriots, or any other team, the tape to show he can. Zappe has a ton of confidence in himself when you listen to him, it just hasn't translated to a full game this year, and since the end of the first half in that Bears game last year, if you want to go back that far.
Points Spread: DEN -6.5 (-120) | NE +6.5 (-102)
Moneyline: DEN (-335) | NE (+270)
Over/Under: O 35.5 (-104) | U 35.5 (-118)
Lines via FanDuel as of Friday, December 22
Nothing too insightful this week, I'd go Denver both ways and the over. I especially don't see the under-hitting in this one after what happened last week, but weirder things have happened. Just don't bet the emergency last-second Christmas shopping money on this game.
Yet another team that can't afford a loss against the Patriots, but has the firepower, home field, and historical advantage in their favor. While Denver isn't knocked out of the playoff hunt with a loss, they would need a lot of things to go right and quickly at that. I don't trust Wilson or Sean Payton much, but I think the Broncos do enough to live to fight another day while the Patriots get closer to a top-three draft pick.
Final Score: Denver Broncos 24, New England Patriots 16
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