FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Only four games have passed for the Broncos since they last visited New England, where their roller-coaster 2011 season ended in a 45-10 thrashing to the Patriots on a frigid January night.
But the Broncos’ changes in the last nine months are so profound that there’s little the Patriots will be able to extract from the film of that game — as well as their 41-23 win over the Broncos four weeks earlier. If anything, the Patriots will gain more from watching footage of their games against the Indianapolis Colts than from their recent encounters with the Broncos.
After studying the Broncos, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the Denver offense was “identical” to what Indianapolis ran during Peyton Manning’s 13 seasons there.
“I can’t really say that one way or the other,” a coy Manning said when the subject was broached during a media conference call Wednesday. “Obviously I can’t force someone else’s opinion and I think for me to respond to that would be too informative.
“If that’s (Belichick’s) evaluation, that’s his. It’s new players that I’m playing with, new coaches and there are new things for me. So everybody can form their own opinion.”
Against Oakland last Sunday, Denver’s offense looked exactly like the Colts’ high-powered attack did during the salad days of Manning, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison. Manning opened the 37-6 win in the no-huddle, spread the ball around to his receivers, and took advantage of the Raiders’ attention to pass routes by audibling into handoffs to Willis McGahee, who gained 112 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
“We complement each other,” McGahee said. “The run complements the pass, the pass complements the run. It’s just the fact of us getting that mesh going on with the run and pass, just trying to be balanced.”
Efforts like that and the Broncos’ overall improvement on offense offer evidence that they can keep pace for a 60-minute shootout this time. The Broncos and Manning rank in the league’s top 10 in points (seventh), passing yardage (ninth), passer rating (10th) and touchdown passes (fifth) — all of which are massive improvements from last year, when they were 25th in scoring, 31st in passing yardage, 26th in quarterback rating and 18th in touchdown passes.
“Oh, we can put up points. There’s no doubt about it,” McGahee said.
“I think we’re on a different level than we were last year, just as far as the players, just us being together, getting that mesh in with Peyton, I think we’re better than we were last year. It’s just the fact that we need to execute more.”
And the key there is to avoid turnovers. Only seven teams have more giveaways than the Broncos’ seven so far this season, and some were the result of careless play rather than anything the opposing defense did — most notably an open-field fumble that wide receiver Demaryius Thomas lost while switching the football from one hand to another against the Raiders on Sept. 30.
Such sloppiness could prove fatal. No AFC team has forced more turnovers than the Patriots, who have grabbed six interceptions and recovered five opponents’ fumbles this year.
“They’ve forced some big plays their way, so our offense has to be on top of it,” Manning said.
SERIES HISTORY: 43rd regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 25-17. The most notable meeting between the teams was on Jan. 4, 1987, when the Broncos defeated the defending AFC champion Patriots 22-17 in the divisional round; it was the Patriots’ last playoff game for nearly eight years.