DENVER (AP) — The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos are usually teeter-tottering for supremacy in the AFC in what’s become an annual showdown.
Not this time.
This one looks like anything but a marquee matchup between the teams that have won the past three Super Bowls.
The Patriots (6-2) strut into Denver on Sunday night in customary hot pursuit of the conference’s No. 1 playoff seeding. They’re in the mix again behind the NFL’s No. 1 offense and the seemingly ageless Tom Brady and despite a rash of injuries, an inconsistent O-line and a scuffling, 32nd-ranked defense.
The Broncos (3-5) are just trying to extricate themselves from a month-long funk that’s resulting in four consecutive double-digit losses and exposed plenty of warts, including poor draft classes, free agent misses, turnstile tackles and stubborn play calling.
Denver has been outscored 41-3 in the first quarter during its dive, which led to Trevor Siemian’s benching in favor of Brock Osweiler and neutralized a star-studded defense which lost its not-my-fault vibe last week in a 28-point loss at Philadelphia.
Even star defender Aqib Talib had a forgettable performance in that one.
“He didn’t have a great game last week — none of us did — but you can tell how he’s worked in practice this week,” coach Vance Joseph said, stressing he’s seen a renewed laser-like focus in the 2016 All-Pro cornerback.
“Yeah, kind of half-focused, half still (ticked) off,” Talib said. “This is the week, though. This is a big opportunity for us. If we’re going to spark that fire, this is going to be the week. So, I’m definitely focused.”
Handing Brady his eighth loss in 11 trips to Denver could propel the Broncos on a second-half surge against a much softer schedule.
“If we come out on that stage Sunday night and if we’re able to get a win, man, the swag, the energy in this locker room, it’ll skyrocket,” Talib said. “It’s the perfect game. It’s what we need. Powerhouse, put them in front of us, see what we’re going to do.”
Other subplots in the teams’ 10th meeting since 2011:
TERRIFIC TALIB: Patriots coach Bill Belichick is expecting the Broncos to bounce right back from their 51-23 shellacking at Philadelphia .
“They’re a very experienced team. I’m sure we’re not going to see anything close to what happened last week in Philadelphia,” Belichick said. “I know we’ll get their best effort. They have a lot of great players that will compete hard and are tough. I feel like we’re going to have to play our best game of the year this weekend.”
Among those greats is Talib, who played for him in 2012 and `13.
“Aqib’s a great player and a tremendous competitor. I have so much respect for him,” Belichick said.
“He’s just a great football player. Tackles well, tough and is really smart. Great ball skills, can handle the big receivers and can handle the quick receivers. Very crafty in his disguises and some of the techniques he uses out there, he’s a very tough guy for the quarterback to read or to fool. He’s as good as we play against.”
MILLER TIME : Von Miller had a quiet game against Brady in Denver’s 16-3 home loss to New England last season.
“They were throwing the ball quick,” Miller said. “Tom Brady was flawless. Everybody was flawless on offense. It wasn’t really a high-scoring game either, though. If we make them play where they’ve got to throw the ball and really score some points it’ll be different.”
Such as in the AFC championship game two years ago, maybe. Miller got to Brady seven times that day and collected 2 sacks, a pass breakup and an interception in a precursor to his MVP performance against Cam Newton and the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
BATTERED BRADY: The Broncos are the only team with a winning record against Brady (9-7) and they think they might be able to hound him as they did in that AFC championship game two years ago.
Brady has been sacked 21 times and taken 43 hits so far after being sacked just 15 times last season. O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia sees hope on the horizon — even if Miller’s standing in his way.
“We’re trying to do it right,” Scarnecchia said. “We’ve just got to get it done better than what we’re doing. Look, we’re eight games into this deal, and no one’s satisfied. They’re not. I’m not. Certainly, the head coach isn’t.”
ROAD WARRIORS: The Patriots can tie their own AFC record with their 12th consecutive road win Sunday night, which begins a six-week stretch in which they play just once at home.
“This is about the time when everyone starts to see what you’re made of,” Brady said. “… We have very competitive games starting, obviously, with this one, a tough place to play against a very tough team. None of them are going to be easy, so we’re going to have to play better than we’ve played. ”