Unconventional Preview: Patriots can show Broncos that this season is going to be different

The Patriots' running game, AWOL in last season's AFC title game, should be a key Sunday.

With one more rushing touchdown, LeGarrette Blount will own the Patriots' single-season record by himself.
With one more rushing touchdown, LeGarrette Blount will own the Patriots' single-season record by himself. –Ben Margot / AP

COMMENTARY

Welcome to Season 5, Episode 14 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, occasionally nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.

First, let’s get this straight: The Patriots’ visit to Denver Sunday afternoon is not an opportunity for payback, vengeance or comeuppance. The Broncos beat them in last season’s AFC Championship Game — barely and convincingly at once, winning 20-18 but physically overwhelming the Patriots’ offensive line — and nothing that happens Sunday has any retroactive effect on what happened then. The Patriots’ quest for a fifth Super Bowl — and a second straight — slipped away that day in one of the most frustrating losses of this era. What’s lost is lost.

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But …

Sunday brings the opportunity to show the defending champion Broncos exactly how much has changed since then. The Patriots’ offensive line is now continuous and competent under the tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia, whose return after a two-year retirement was one of the Patriots’ most important transactions of the offseason. This team runs the ball willingly and well; last year’s did not, again in large part because of a patchwork line. The passing game, with the additions of Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, is as versatile as it has ever been in the Tom Brady era.

Yes, Rob Gronkowski is injured, and the defense, while coming off its most impressive and aggressive performance of the season against the Ravens, still lugs around a few questions.

But we know this is a very good team — and one that is more complete than the one that saw its season end in Denver in January. In retrospect, it’s amazing — and a tribute to Brady, who was hit between 23 and 400 times by Von Miller alone that day — that the Patriots were so close.

Then again, the Broncos did win with a knuckleballer at quarterback.

Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started ….

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THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY

LeGarrette Blount: Quick, who was the Patriots’ leading rusher in that AFC title game? It wasn’t Blount, who was done for the season with a hip injury. It wasn’t any other running back, either. It was Brady, who eluded Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Derek Wolfe often enough to pick up 13 yards on 11 carries. The Patriots finished with 44 rushing yards on 17 carries. Steven Jackson, whose time here equates to Franco Harris, Seattle Seahawk, had a rushing touchdown — and 8 yards on 4 carries. You want to talk about how things change? Now this has changed. Blount, healthy and better than ever, has picked up 1,028 yards on 248 carries while tying Curtis Martin’s single-season record with 14 rushing touchdowns. Blount has never had much success against Denver — he has 46 yards on 16 carries in three career games, including 6 yards on 5 carries in the 2013 AFC title game loss — but that’s almost certain to change Sunday. Denver is 29th in the league in run defense, allowing 127.2 rushing yards per game. The foolproof way to stop Denver’s pass rush is to hand the ball off to Blount time and again Sunday.

Dion Lewis: Get the feeling that the Patriots have been stashing him away, almost to the point that he becomes an afterthought in the opposition’s preparation, but with full intention of unleashing him in full-force at just the right time? Well, I do, and Sunday might be that time. Lewis, who was the revelation of the 2015 season before suffering a season-ending knee injury, looks close to his jitterbug self. But he’s not getting many touches so far, in part because James White is playing the role of Shane Vereen to Lewis’s high-end Danny Woodhead. In four games since his return, he has 19 carries for 88 yards and 12 receptions for 76 yards, total. He hasn’t had more than six carries or four catches in a game. I’d venture to guess he surpasses one or the other — and perhaps both — Sunday.

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Von Miller: His commanding performance in the AFC Championship Game — 2.5 sacks, an interception, and seemingly a hit or disruption of Brady every time he dropped back — was the kind of thing Bill Belichick used to see all the time when he coached Lawrence Taylor. His tormenting of Marcus Cannon was reminiscent of Reggie White spinning Max Lane like a turnstile in Super Bowl XXXI. Miller had the nerve to say lots of nice and respectful things about Belichick, Brady and Gronk in an insightful piece on The Players’ Tribune this week. Don’t fall for the kindness. There’s a pass-rushing menace behind those nerd glasses, and the Patriots know this better than anyone.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

Bit of a conflicted grievance here. Hated seeing Titans receiver Harry Douglas cut stellar Broncos cornerback Chris Harris at the knees during the Titans’ victory last weekend. It was technically a legal hit, but legal doesn’t mean clean, and it was a heck of a lot closer to dirty. Harris was lucky to escape serious injury. That bottom-scraping career-endangering stuff just isn’t necessary.

Then again, the Broncos have been notorious through the years for dirty play, from their cut-blocking offensive line during Terrell Davis’s heyday to the current crew of defensive backs who seem to model their style, with some effectiveness, after the filthy ‘70s Raiders. So watching them deal with a cheap-shot … well, it wasn’t quite justice, but let’s say it was from the same genre.

Either way, it’s apparently not over. That model of stability Aqib Talib picked up a penalty for going after Douglas on the next play, then delivered an edict after the game that ominously suggested Douglas had better not ever find himself in the same zip code, or else. As Brandon Meriweather put it on Toucher and Rich this week: “’Lib is a man of his word.” This is a guy who has shot himself in the leg and once was accused of getting into a shootout with his mom as his sidekick. I wouldn’t just suggest Douglas should avoid crossing paths with Talib. I’d suggest he should go establish an alias, perhaps even find a new country to call home. I hear Zihuatenejo is nice this time of year.

PREDICTION, OR DOES DEREK WOLFE MODEL HIS ENTIRE PERSONA AFTER ‘80s TEEN MOVIE VILLAINS?

This one strikes me as a test of Josh McDaniels’s discipline. The Broncos have a killer pass rush. They can’t stop the run. The Patriots have the best quarterback ever to play. But they run the ball as well as they have in years. The temptation to put the weight of this game — the Patriots can clinch their eighth straight AFC East title and a first-round bye with a win — on Brady’s shoulders must be resisted. The Patriots have an opportunity Sunday to put a dent in the Broncos’ playoff hopes, and they can do so while establishing that they are not just the better team this year, but the physically tougher one. And they can do it without giving Miller and his quarterback-battering friends the opportunity to fold, spindle, and mutilate Brady like they did in January. Listen to the gospel of the Speedwagon, Josh: Take it on the run, baby. Patriots 30, Broncos 20.

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