After a strong second half recovery paved the way for a 52-28 win over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Patriots have worked their way back to .500 with a 2-2 record. However, things aren't going to get any easier for New England, as the Patriots prepare to welcome in the Denver Broncos to Gillette Stadium for a showdown this Sunday afternoon.
Here are five things to watch for when these two teams meet at 4:25 p.m. ET.
1) Will the offensive line hold up against Denver's pass-rushing superstars?
The two strengths of Denver's defense are undoubtedly their top young pass-rushers, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Thus far this season, the two have already combined for 5.5 sacks. The two do a tremendous job of disrupting the pocket of the opposing quarterback and throwing him off his rhythm. After missing last Sunday's game in Buffalo due to injury, left guard Logan Mankins will need to be able to return to the Patriots' lineup this week if New England hopes to contain Denver's explosive left-side pass-rush. Sophomore left tackle Nate Solder will be relied upon this week, more than ever, to protect Tom Brady's blindside from either one of these All-Pro defenders, who typically line up to the left of the quarterback.
2) Can Stephen Gostkowski be relied upon in a clutch situation?
After coming up empty on what would have been a game-winning field goal against Arizona in week two, Stephen Gostkowski would miss back-to-back make-able attempts (42 and 49 yards) in Buffalo last week. This week, no one expects there to be a 24-point gap between these two teams near the end of the game, like there was against the Bills when Gostkowski made his only successful attempt of the day, and there may be a situation in which the Patriots will be in need of a late game field goal, whether it be for the lead, the win or to tie the game. It is unclear if head coach Bill Belichick will trust his kicker if a scenario like this does arise on Sunday. However, if he does, the Patriots will need Gostkowski to be able to put the memories of Week 2 behind him and knock one -- or two -- through the uprights.
3) Can Denver's offense succeed on the road?
Through their first four games of the season, the Broncos have only once had to leave the friendly confines of Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. In Week 2 at Atlanta against a dangerous Falcons squad, the Broncos struggled to get things going, falling by a score of 27-21 on Monday Night Football. Quarterback Peyton Manning struggled to communicate with his new teammates in his first road game since signing with the Broncos, which led to three sacks and a trifecta of first half interceptions for the Falcons' defense. With a couple more games in Denver under his belt, Peyton has likely developed more of a rapport with his teammates and won't experience the same problems that he did that night at the Georgia Dome. However, if the sold out crowd at Gillette Stadium can create a tough environment for No. 18, it can only help the efforts of the Patriots' defense.
4) Will the Patriots be able to repeat their success in the ground game?
In Buffalo, running backs Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley combined for a huge day on the ground, rushing for 243 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries. Through the first quarter of the season, the Broncos have allowed just 88 rushing yards per game, led by run-stopping linebackers Joe Mays and Wesley Woodyard. If Bolden and Ridley are able to open things up in the run game once again, the Patriots should be able to control the clock, keeping Manning on the sideline for as long as possible.
5) Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning:The epic rivalry continues
For the thirteenth time in each of their illustrious careers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will square off against one another. If you think about it, the two men have truly been complete opposites in the way that their careers began. Tom Brady, the sixth round pick out of Michigan and Peyton Manning the number one overall draft choice from the University of Tennessee. Through their first eleven meetings, Brady has gotten the better of Manning, winning eight games to Peyton's four. However, ol' 18 has come back strong, besting his arch-rival in four of their last six head-to-head match-ups. This game will of course have an entirely different feel, with Peyton no longer suiting up for the Colts.
Speaking of the Colts, I'd like to take a second here to extend my deepest condolences to their head coach, Chuck Pagano, and his family after he was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this week. It's times like these that life reminds us all of how important it is to keep things in perspective, and that sports simply aren't everything. Here's wishing the Colts' first year head coach a speedy recovery and a return to the field next season.
Prediction: Broncos eek this one out on the road in a shootout, 34-31.