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Broncos a pain in neck despite all the injuries

FOXBOROUGH -- It's smart to learn from your mistakes. It's even wiser to learn from the mistakes of others.

The Denver Broncos have lost three of their last four games. Their starting quarterback, Jake Plummer, is out with a broken left foot. His backup, Steve Beuerlein, is on injured reserve with a broken right little finger. His backup, Danny Kanell, was coaching his high school alma mater's team in Florida last month after having been out of football for two years, during which he played first base for the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League then quarterback for the Arena Football League's New York Dragons. Kanell sprained his right index finger last Sunday in Baltimore and is probable for Monday night's game against the Patriots at Invesco Field at Mile High.

Denver is without two of its top linebackers, Ian Gold having been placed on IR earlier this month with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and John Mobley out this week after having suffered a bruised spinal cord last Sunday.

Starting left tackle Ephraim Salaam will miss his second of three games Monday night after undergoing right knee surgery. Receiver Ed McCaffrey has missed two games and is questionable with a quadriceps injury.

Fifth straight? Piece of cake. New England is going into the bye week 7-2, no problem, right?

Yeah, right.

"That's the same thing that people were saying a couple of weeks ago against us," Bill Belichick said yesterday. " `Well, this guy is out and that guy is out, maybe we just ought to save the plane fare.' "

"We've been that wounded animal before, too," Tom Brady added. "You kind of rally around each other. I think the thing about it is they have great coaches, they play well at home, and they're very good on defense. I don't think it's going to matter too much who's out there. They're all professional football players. I don't mean that sarcastically, but they're all good."

You're right, Tom. They are all good. Tennessee, the New York Giants, Miami, Cleveland (or so we were told), and now Denver, whose three losses all have been on the road (against teams with a combined record of 18-4, no less). The Broncos are third in the league in red-zone defense, second in total defense, and first in third-down defense. And, as usual, they're near the top of the league in rushing offense (third).

"It seems like every week, Coach stands up there and says, `They're first in this and second in this.' " said Brady. "I'm saying, `Didn't we play those guys last week?' "

No, Tom, you played these guys last year. Lost to them at Gillette Stadium, 24-16, even though your Patriots were coming off a bye. Didn't have too enjoyable a day, either: 15 of 29 for 130 yards. Wasn't as bad as two years ago, though, when you threw four interceptions in the second half of a 31-20 loss in the Rocky Mountains.

You see a defense starting rookie Jashon Sykes at strongside linebacker and cornerbacks named Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon, and you figure Brady should have no problem lighting up the Colorado sky, right?

Yeah, right.

"They plug linebackers in there and they still lead the league in defense," Belichick said. "They don't have any problem with that. [Their] two corners, I'm sure a lot of people couldn't even name who they are. They're playing good on pass defense. They're leading the league on third down. So don't tell me about their corners. They're just the best in the league, that's all."

Belichick has instructed the Patriots not to feed into the "Monday Night Football" hype or the Broncos' home-field advantage or any perceived disadvantage for the visiting team of playing in Denver's high altitude. Focus on the Broncos -- whoever they are -- that's all, is the theme for the week.

"What are you going to do about it?" Belichick said of the hostile environment into which his team will venture. "We're both playing on the same field as far as I know. I've lived in Denver. I've coached teams out there [assistant special teams, defensive assistant in 1978]. We've gone out there and won when we played well [2000, 28-19]. We've gone out there and lost when we haven't played well ['01]. Three years ago we won out there. Two years ago we lost. I don't think the air beat us. I don't think the air won for us, either. It's Denver that I'm worried about. I'm not really worried about the clouds and the air and how much hydrogen there is and all of that. I'm worried about Denver."

Belichick has expressed his respect for Broncos coach Mike Shanahan before, but yesterday spoke as if his admiration had grown, having observed Shanahan maintain consistency amid turnover.

"The key to it is Mike Shanahan," Belichick said. "When you talk about offense in the NFL, nobody has done more than he has on a consistent basis year after year. It doesn't matter who the back is, it doesn't matter who the line is, it doesn't matter who the quarterback is, they move the ball and they score points. They produce in the red area, they're good on third down, and he's done a great job year after year after year with whoever the players are . . . They've had to shuffle the deck before."

Said safety Rodney Harrison, who made annual trips to Denver as a member of AFC West rival San Diego and nearly became a Bronco last offseason because of Shanahan, "You can't go against Mike Shanahan's system thinking that because they don't have their starting quarterback or their first-string quarterback that he's off. He's going to put Kanell in position to where he has easier reads, he can just play football, and he's comfortable. We're not going in there underestimating this group at all. This is one of the most talented groups we've gone against.

"This is our sternest test to date."

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