ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – After giving up 86 points to the Patriots last year, the Denver Broncos realized just how far away they were from becoming a championship contender.

Following the Broncos’ 45-10 loss at New England in the playoffs, coach John Fox pledged, “We will do everything we can to get better.”

And they did.

They swapped Tim Tebow for Peyton Manning, retooled the offense and fortified their defense. They’ll get to gauge just how much they’ve narrowed that gap Sunday when they visit Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Champ Bailey insists the gulf hasn’t just been narrowed but closed entirely, suggesting the Broncos “know we can win” this time, something he’s not so sure they believed nine months ago.

“I didn’t feel like there were 53 guys that thought we could win,” Bailey said. “And it showed.”

He wouldn’t name names, instead saying the Broncos (2-2) are simply better equipped and better prepared to keep up with the Patriots (2-2) this time around.

“Couple of different players here and there. Different coordinator. Different mentality,” Bailey said. “But I think last year, it was pretty obvious we didn’t put our best effort in that last game. It was real disappointing to get that far and not put forth 100 percent. But it is what it is, it’s in the past, and this is a different year, different breed of guys going in there.”

With right guard Chris Kuper ready to return from a broken left forearm, middle linebacker Joe Mays back from a one-game suspension for an illegal hit, and second-year tight end Virgil Green‘s month-long suspension for violating the league’s banned-substances policy over, the Broncos are as invigorated as they’ve been all season.

They had perfect attendance at practice this week for the first time.

And they have a healthy confidence, too, insisting they can keep up with the high-powered Patriots after losing to them 41-23 on Dec. 18, ending a six-game winning streak, and by five touchdowns in the divisional playoffs in January.

“I think we have better personnel and we have a better scheme,” Mays said. “We just have to go out there and execute.”

That’s something they didn’t do well last year, when Denver’s offense had eight three-and-outs, four four-and-outs and lost a fumble on the first play of another drive in two blowout losses to New England.

Now, they have Manning running the show.

“Oh, we can put up points,” running back Willis McGahee boasted. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Asked about the firepower the Broncos bring to Foxborough this time around, McGahee borrowed a phrase from the New York Jets’ loquacious linebacker Bart Scott that punctuated a postgame rant following a playoff victory over New England a couple of years ago.

“I like the firepower regardless of this year or last year, but yep, this year is a little bit better,” McGahee said. “Looking forward to it. Can’t wait. In Bart Scott words, `Can’t wait!’ ”

With Tebow, the Broncos ran the read-option that proved no match for Brady’s precision passing game.

“I think like last year we went into the game, run first, worry about the pass later,” McGahee said. “This year we can do both. So, the sky’s the limit. It’s not like we’re going to be cornered in one position, just run the ball, run the ball, you know? We’re going to be able to get some passes off, we’re going to be able to get some runs off.”

Manning’s arrival alone made both the Broncos’ offense and defense better. With his ability to produce long drives, Denver’s defense hasn’t been as gassed as it was with the offense going three-and-out so often like it did under Tebow.

That could make a big difference Sunday.

“Ah, it’s going to be great,” Mays said. “What our offense brings is going to be great to keep us off the field a little bit, because while we’re out there, it’s going to be hard work. We’re going against one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and it’s going to be a tough one for us. I’m looking forward to going out there and having a much better outcome than we did two times last year.”

Notes: Broncos FB Chris Gronkowski had no advice this week for his teammates who will be facing his brother, Patriots All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski: “They’ve seen the film. They played him last year, so they should have a good idea. I don’t have to go against him, so I don’t really know.”

By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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