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Scouting Report: What you have to know about Patriots-Broncos 12.17.16 at 12:24 pm ET
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LeGarrette Blount could get a lot of run this week against the Broncos. (Getty Images)

LeGarrette Blount could get a lot of run this week against the Broncos. (Getty Images)

Everything you need to know for Sunday’s game between the Patriots (11-2) and Broncos (8-5) in Denver.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL

First, a mea culpa: I was completely wrong last week when it came to New England’s run game. I didn’t think the Patriots would have the stones to run it as much as they did against the Ravens, and I was stone cold wrong. LeGarrette Blount was immense in the win over Baltimore, leading the way against the toughest run defense in the league. With that out of the way, let me tell you that unless Blount (248 carries, 1,028 yards, 14 TDs) gets the ball 20-plus times against the Broncos, something is amiss. At 29th overall, Denver is one of the worst run defenses in the league, as the Broncos allow 127.2 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, Blount and the New England run game is on a roll, with at least 80 yards per game in the last five contests. (That includes 171 rushing yards as a team against the Niners last month.) Expect the Patriots to go all-in on the likes of Blount, as well as James White (33 carries, 132 yards) and Dion Lewis (19 carries, 88 yards) in an attempt to overmatch the Broncos. The real impact should be felt in the second half; if New England is up double-digits in the third and fourth quarter, the Patriots will lean heavily on their big back down the stretch in hopes of getting them to the finish line. A winnable matchup for New England.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL

Strength against strength. The Patriots are one of the best passing teams in the league (fourth at 280 yards per game, even without Tom Brady for the first month of the season), while the Broncos boast the best pass defense in the game (183 yards allowed per contest). When you throw in the fact that Brady has traditionally struggled in Denver (he’s pretty much a .500 proposition when facing Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips), it shouldn’t give you the same level of confidence if he was going up against, say, a Jack Del Rio defense. Denver has more interceptions (12) than touchdowns allowed (10). Aqib Talib and Darian Stewart have three interceptions each, while Von Miller (13.5 sacks) and Shane Ray (6 sacks) lead the pass rush. Additionally, the Broncos’ 38 sacks are second in the league to Carolina (39).

On Sunday, Brady (69 percent completion rate, 2,876 yards, 22 TDs, 2 INTs, 113.6 passer rating) will look for a variety of targets, including Julian Edelman (79 catches, 126 targets, 791 yards, 2 TDs), Martellus Bennett (48 catches, 62 targets, 614 yards, 5 TDs) and Malcolm Mitchell (28 catches, 42 targets, 358 yards, 4 TDs). Our guess is that Aqib Talib gets Edelman, at least for a sizable portion of the day. And while those guys can’t be discounted, it’s the running backs out of the backfield who could be the difference-makers on Sunday: the Broncos have occasionally struggled to defend backs in the passing game, and if that remains the case, the James White/Dion Lewis combo (50 catches, 474 yards, 4 TDs for White; 12 catches, 76 yards for Lewis) could be a big focus for Brady and the Patriots’ passing game on Sunday.

One other potential area of focus for the Patriots: Denver has a fluid situation at inside linebacker, as inside linebacker Todd Davis is returning from a strained oblique that knocked him out of last week’s game, while fellow inside linebacker Brandon Marshall has already been ruled out because of a hamstring. With Denver’s defensive line and secondary so strong, there could be some vulnerabilities when it comes to short crossing patterns over the middle.

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Read More: Brandon McManus, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe, Emannuel Sanders
Julian Edelman ready to put his ‘little friendship to the side’ with Aqib Talib this Sunday 12.16.16 at 4:22 pm ET
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Jan 24, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) is tackled by Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan (59) in the AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Julian Edelman makes a catch against Denver in last year’s AFC Championship in Denver. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO — Julian Edelman still has a very fond place in his heart for Aqib Talib. The two combatants, who squared off in spirited practices when teammates with the Patriots, are renewing acquaintances this Sunday in Denver.

This Sunday marks the third time Julian Edelman and Aqib Talib have squared off since Talib left New England after the 2013 AFC championship.

The Patriots beat the Broncos 43-21 in 2014, when Edelman caught nine passes on 10 targets for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Last year, the Patriots raced out to a 21-7 lead but lost in overtime, 30-24 in their regular season meeting at Sports Authority Field. In that meeting, Edelman sat out with a broken bone in his left foot suffered two weeks earlier. But Edelman returned in time for the playoffs and faced Talib and the Broncos again in the AFC championship. There, he had seven catches on 13 targets for 53 yards.

The two developed a close bond over the year-and-a-half they played together in New England.

“Quite frankly, it’s kind of funny because we’ve had such a good relationship here,” Edelman said Friday. “I loved Talib as a teammate and he kind of cracks me up. He’s competitive, feisty, very instinctive, savvy. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to go out and do things right or he’s going to expose you.”

Has Edelman ever played with anyone like Talib?

“He’s a one-of-a-kind,” Edelman said. “He’s a good dude but come Sunday he’s on the other team. We’re going to have to put our little friendship to the side.”

But facing Talib on the field is never a given with Wade Phillips calling the shots on the Denver defense. With the likes of Chris Harris and Bradley Roby playing alongside Talib, there’s always the chance that Edelman will see different looks whenever and wherever he lines up.

“They switch it up. I’ve played against Harris, I’ve played against Roby, I’ve played against Talib,” Edelman said. “It all depends on how they’re feeling [about defending me]. So, you’ve got to be prepared for all of them.”

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Read More: Aqib Talib, Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos, Julian Edelman
5 things to know about Broncos: Defending champs entering must-win mode 12.13.16 at 10:10 pm ET
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Former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is having another good year in Denver. (Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports)

Former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is having another good year in Denver. (Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports)

Five things you have to know about the Broncos (8-5) who will host the Patriots (11-2) Sunday in Denver.

They have a very good pass defense. The Broncos have been up and down across the board all season long, and while they have had serious problems when it comes to defending the run (more on that in a second), they are still the best in the league when it comes to pass defense. Denver allows an average of 183 passing yards per game, and have more interceptions as a team (12) than touchdown passes allowed (10). Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees were the only three quarterbacks to top 200 passing yards against Denver this season. Aqib Talib and Darian Stewart have three interceptions each. while Von Miller (13.5 sacks) and Shane Ray (6 sacks) lead the pass rush. As a team, their 38 sacks are second in the league to Carolina (39). Overall, Tom Brady is 5-3 when going against a Wade Phillips’ defense over the course of his career, with a 59 percent completion rate (202-for-343) with 2,493 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 16 sacks.

They do not have a good run defense. As good as the Broncos are when it comes to pass defense, they’re that bad against the run. Denver is 29th in the league against the run, allowing a whopping 127.2 rushing yards per game. The Broncos have struggled to hold opponents to under 100 yards on the ground; in eight of their 13 games, Denver has seen the opposition go over the century mark in rushing, and in three of their last five, teams have topped 150 yards. (Oakland put up 218 rushing yards in a win over the Broncos last month.) Might be a good day for LeGarrette Blount.

They also struggle to run the ball. The Broncos are 27th in the league in rushing with an average of 93.8 rushing yards per game and their 3.8 yards per carry is 28th overall. There have been positive moments, but those have been few and far between this year. Things bottomed out for Denver last week when the Broncos had a season-low 18 rushing yards in a road loss to the Titans. Justin Forsett (6 carries, 17 yards) and Devontae Booker (149 carries, 511 yards, 3 TDs) have been tasked with carrying the load, but they’re coming up short. Overall, Denver has topped 100 yards on the ground in just six of its 13 games this season. With the recent improvements in New England’s run defense — the Patriots have gone from allowing 101.6 rushing yards per game a month ago to 90.2 entering this weekend — it probably won’t make much sense for the Broncos to challenge New England on the ground.

Trevor Siemian is no Peyton Manning. In his first full year as a starter, Siemian is 230-for-376 (61 percent) with 2,730 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passing rating of 89.7. OK, but not good enough to jumpstart an occasionally sluggish Denver offense. The best game of the year for the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder came in a September win over the Bengals in Cincinnati when he finished 23-for-35 for 312 yards, four touchdowns and a passer rating of 132.1. When he throws, he’s looking for Demaryius Thomas (76 catches, 119 targets, 925 yards, 5 TDs), Emmanuel Sanders (75 catches, 128 targets, 958 yards, 5 TDs) and Booker (21 catches, 29 targets, 153 yards). The simple truth is that the Broncos do not feature the sort of deep passing attack that has occasionally given the Patriots troubles this season. Sunday will mark his first start against a Bill Belichick-led defense.

There’s some desperation. The Broncos have lost three of their last five to fall to 8-5 on the season. Most years, that would still be enough to guarantee an AFC West title, but this isn’t most years. Denver, who is sixth in the current AFC playoff picture, needs a win Sunday to solidify its postseason chances, especially when you consider the Broncos have the toughest slate if you measure by opponents’ winning percentage. (Denver’s three remaining opponents have a winning percentage of .795.)

Read More: Aqib Talib, Bill Belichick, Darian Stewart, Devontae Booker
Peter King on M&M: Texans need to limit Patriots’ possessions 01.11.13 at 12:07 pm ET
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Sports Illustrated NFL insider Peter King made his weekly appearance on Mut & Merloni on Friday morning to talk about Sunday’s Patriots-Texans AFC playoff game and other news from around the league.

King said the key for the Texans to avoid a repeat of the Dec. 10 shellacking at the hands of the Patriots is to limit Tom Brady‘s opportunities.

“The only way I see it being close is if Houston really limits the number of possessions by the Patriots, which I think is going to be hard anyway,” King said. “And even if they do that, part of me thinks that Brady with eight possessions is still going to be able to put up enough points on the board. If I’m Houston, I’m playing the four-corners offense that Dean Smith used to play at North Carolina. You’ve got to slow the game down. You’ve got to play the way the Giants played the Bills in the Super Bowl 21 years ago.

“I would also make this point, that I think one of the things during the course of the year that has really become noticeable: No matter who’s on the field for New England — whether they have [Rob] Gronkowski, whether they don’t; whether [Aaron] Hernandez is healthy or not — they’re still running fast and running a lot of plays. I was amazed when I looked this up this week: The New England Patriots ran 13 more plays a game in 2012 than in 2010. They ran 205 more plays this year than they did just two years ago.

“It’s just another instance of Bill Belichick learning as he gets older as a coach. You’re never finished learning in this business, because once you think you are, some new Chip Kelly or some new defensive guy comes in there and makes your job a lot more difficult. Hats off to the Patriots for basically advancing the ball down the field really in a schematic sense.”

King said he expects Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, known for being reliant on the blitz, to avoid being as predictable as he has in the past.

“I think he’ll change up from the first game they played,” King said. “One of the things I think they’ll emphasize, a change in this game I think is going to be a healthy Brooks Reed, assuming that he is. And Connor Barwin coming as well as J.J. Watt and occasionally Whitney Mercilus.

“I think that one of the things you have to look at if you are the Houston Texans is you’ve got to make sure that your linebackers are going to be cognizant of the intermediate stuff. And they’ve just got to clog the field. To me, when you play Tom Brady, I couldn’t agree more: I think blitzes — I’m not saying they’re fruitless, because you have to do everything. But I think you’ve got to clog the middle of the field against him because he loves doing so many things with a guy like Gronkowski. I’m not sure about this, but I heard Connor Barwin on the radio saying yesterday he’s never played Gronkowski before. So, there’s a newness to this. There’s going to be a feeling-out early that’s going to be an interesting thing in an X’s and O’s sense to watch.”

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Peter King, Tom Brady, wade phillips
Wade Phillips’ comments on Wes Welker create stir 01.10.13 at 8:55 pm ET
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Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips stirred some mild controversy on Thursday when answering a question on Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Phillips was asked by ESPN.com whether or not Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph — who covered Cincinnati’s A.J. Green in Houston’s wild-card win over the Bengals — would draw Welker in this week’s divisional playoff matchup.

“Welker’s not Green,” Phillips said. “He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy. He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes. [Brandon] Harris actually played him pretty good.”

For what it’s worth, in the first game between the two teams Welker was held to three catches (matching a season-low) for 52 yards in the 42-14 win over the Texans.

Later in the day, Phillips tweeted the following message: “Wes Welker is a great athlete and one of the best receivers of all time. #twistthataround”

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

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Cosell: When it comes to identifying Patriots’ defensive front, mind the gap 03.26.12 at 11:09 am ET
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During the 2011 season, much was made about the Patriots’ apparent decision to move from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. With the acquisition of veteran defensive linemen like Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Albert Haynesworth — all defenders who appeared to be a better fit in a 4-3 — it certainly appeared Bill Belichick was making a seismic shift in defensive sensibility.

But it turns out that the idea of 4-3 vs. 3-4 scheme in New England wasn’€™t as simple as having someone on the edge put their hand on the ground instead of stand up. Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who serves as the executive producer of ESPN’€™s ‘€œNFL Matchup,’€ said that when it comes to the Patriots, the differences between a three-man front and a four-man front are more complex than you’€™d think.

‘€œYou have to understand one thing — fronts are not determined by who’€™s in a three-point stance and who is in a two-point stance. Fronts are determined by gap concepts,’€ Cosell said. ‘€œAnd I guarantee if you look at a lot of the Patriots’€™ ‘€˜three-man fronts’€™ in the past where there’€™s actually two linebackers standing up on the outside, you’€™ll see that they’€™re actually in four-man front principles.’€

Some of the versatility of defenders like Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich allow the Patriots to present one front when they’€™re actually in a different look altogether.

‘€œWith the Patriots, it’€™s complicated. You’€™ll see a three-technique. You’€™ll see a nose shade, not a nose tackle. Sure, there were snaps where they played a true 3-4 with a true nose tackle or a zero technique and two ends who are five techniques. But just because you have three down linemen, it doesn’€™t mean you are playing a 3-4.’€

With the Patriots cutting Haynesworth and losing Anderson in free agency to Buffalo and the future of Carter uncertain because of injury, Cosell believes the Patriots won’€™t necessarily brand themselves a 3-4 or 4-3 team going forward, no matter who they might draft (or otherwise acquire), saying there’€™s ‘€œno need for them to make a delineation between 3-4 and 4-3. You don’€™t need to do that.’€

Instead, look for them to continue to add versatile linemen and keep people guessing.

‘€œIn Houston, Wade Phillips‘€™ defense is not a 3-4. It’€™s a 4-3. It just has the weak side defensive end — which was DeMarcus Ware in Dallas and was Mario Williams in Houston — stand up in a two-point stance. But every gap tells you it’€™s a 4-3,’€ Cosell said. ‘€œPeople immediately assume because you see three down linemen and you see two outside linebackers standing up, that’€™s a 3-4. No. Belichick is smarter than that.’€

Read More: Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Bill Belichick, DeMarcus Ware
Patriots Potential Playoff Opponents: Houston Texans 12.27.11 at 9:17 pm ET
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With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is part of a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We’€™ve already profiled the Baltimore Ravens. Today, we’€™ve got a look at the Houston Texans:

The skinny: If the Texans were ever going to win the AFC South, this was the year: without Peyton Manning, the Colts were down, Tennessee was rebuilding and Jacksonville started slowly and made a coaching change. Houston took advantage, and now, they enter the final week of the regular season at 10-5, having already clinched the AFC South championship. (They’€™re currently locked in as the No. 3 playoff seed in the AFC.) They have some impressive wins on their resume, including victories over the Steelers (17-10), Atlanta (17-10) and Cincinnati (20-19). However, they also have more than enough stinkers, including defeats to Oakland, Carolina and Indianapolis. From a distance, the Texans appear to be a competitive young team that has had some occasional struggles with success.

Offense: Houston is down to its third-string quarterback, and while T.J. Yates (78-for-130 for 902 yards with three TDs and three INTs) has played relatively well down the stretch, there are plenty of holes in his game. Offensively, the Texans are powered by running back Arian Foster, who has 1,224 yards on 278 carries for 10 touchdowns and a 4.4 yards per carry average. Houston is anticipating the return of wide receiver Andre Johnson (six games, 31 catches, 471 yards, two touchdowns) for the postseason, and if he is at full strength (he’€™s been slowed by a hamstring problem), he gives the Texans a pair of dynamic skill position players who are among the best at their position.

Defense: Thanks to linebackers Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Brooks Reed (six sacks) and defensive end J.J. Watt (5.5 sacks), the Texans do a good job getting after the quarterback. They’€™re one of the best teams in the league when it comes to the rest of their defense: second in average total yards allowed (280.7), tied for second in the league against the pass (184 yards per game), fourth in the league against the run (96.7 yards per game) and fourth in the league in points per game allowed (17).

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Read More: Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin

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