They have been here before, yet it will be unfamiliar territory.
The Patriots will play at Denver, in an AFC divisional round game Saturday night, almost three months to the day they were pounded in the Mile High City during the regular season.
But the Patriots, who flew past Jacksonville, 28-3, Saturday at Gillette Stadium, are not the same team they were when the Broncos ran out to a 28-3 lead before claiming a 28-20 victory.
''Well, we don't make excuses for our losses," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said. ''We play fair and square. They outplayed us.
''We are not going to say we were banged up or we didn't have anybody. We went out there and we faced them like men. They beat us. We don't have any excuses. But none of that really matters right now. All that matters is whoever we face have got to prepare for us and we have got to prepare for them. The best team is going to win."
Call them excuses if you like, but facts are facts. Win or lose, the team the Broncos host this weekend will not be the team they rolled in October.
Barring injury issues (Tedy Bruschi's calf strain kept him out of the wild-card game against the Jaguars), three of the Patriots' 11 starting defenders, including two of their best -- Bruschi and defensive end Richard Seymour -- will face the Broncos for the first time. Another (cornerback Ellis Hobbs) will play in regular sets against the AFC West champion after seeing little time in the first meeting. In fact, half the secondary will be different, with Hobbs and Artrell Hawkins replacing Duane Starks and rookie James Sanders, who got the start at strong safety in just his second NFL game.
Offensively, key figures Corey Dillon, Troy Brown, and Kevin Faulk all missed the game at Denver because of injuries.
''We made some improvements," quarterback Tom Brady said of then vs. now. ''We got some guys healthy, which has helped, and I think there has been more consistency in all phases of the game."
Brady identified some of the Patriots' areas of improvement:
''We're running the ball a little bit better."
The Patriots, who came out of Week 6 at Denver with a 3-3 record, topped 100 yards rushing as a team in just one of those first six games (82.3 average). They have bettered that standard four times in their last six games (118.7 average), including 118 against Jacksonville. And that number would presumably be better had the starters put in full shifts against the Dolphins.
''Probably not as many penalties."
The Patriots were flagged more than 10 times in three of their first six games, and had 52 penalties (and average minus of 75 yards) in that stretch. New England hasn't seen a 10-penalty game since Week 5, and committed only four penalties against the Jaguars.
''I think we are better on third downs."
Opponents converted enough third-down opportunities to put the Patriots 29th in the NFL. By the time the regular season ended, the script had flipped, and Patriots' foes were 29th in third-down efficiency. Jacksonville was just 1 of 12 Saturday night, the best the Patriots have done in that category all season.
''I think the defense is just playing, playing great. It seems like they are always getting pressure on the quarterback, stopping the run."
New England had 11 sacks in the first six games, just one against Denver, and left Denver ranked 25th against the run, having allowed the Broncos 178 rushing yards. The Patriots posted 17 sacks in the last three games they tried to win (they had two against Miami as well), and they had the league's No. 1 rush defense in the last half of the season before the Dolphins took advantage of the reserves.
As far as Brady's concerned, the team's turnaround is an indicator of its stick-to-it-iveness.
''We are going to keep fighting; I know we are going to keep fighting," he said. ''We are going to have a good week of practice and see if we can get ready to play the toughest game of the year."
The Patriots said the same about Jacksonville, but after a 7-3 halftime score, the game turned into a rout, as New England won for the 24th straight time at home after leading at the break.
The eighth consecutive home playoff victory is history now, as the Patriots travel to Denver, where the Broncos, who finished the season 13-3, are 11-2 all time in the postseason.
''The Denver Broncos will be our toughest challenge this season," coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. ''To have any chance, it will take our best game and certainly a lot better performance than the last time we played them."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org