ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – The defending champion New England Patriots wouldn’t seem like an ideal elixir for a team that’s lost its way along with four consecutive games.
The Patriots, though, have long been the Denver Broncos’ best barometer.
“We’ve had a tough stretch here, so the perfect cure is to play a team like this,” coach Vance Joseph said after listing 14 players on his injury report Wednesday. “I mean, it’s the best of the best. So, for us to get our good feeling back it’s the perfect opponent, on national TV, so I’m very excited for Sunday night.”
Despite a rash of injuries to key players, the Patriots (6-2) behind Tom Brady and Bill Belichick come to Colorado planted on their customary perch atop the AFC East.
Behind a porous O-line and sloppy quarterback play, the Broncos (3-5) are adrift under their rookie head coach and mired in a four-week funk in which they’ve been outscored by an average of 31-13.
“The best time to turn it around is against a team like this that’s not going to beat themselves,” Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said. “They’re going to be very disciplined, very detailed and focused on their jobs and we can definitely take something from that.”
John Elway has measured his team’s success against the Patriots both on and off the football field since taking over as head of football operations in 2011.
Either the Patriots or Broncos have earned the AFC’s top playoff seed in all six seasons since then with the Patriots winning three conference championships and two Super Bowls and the Broncos winning two AFC titles and one Super Bowl.
In his first season in Denver, Elway watched Belichick and Brady twice school Tim Tebow, convincing him he had to make a play for Peyton Manning in free agency.
After a loss at New England in Week 5 dropped Manning to 2-3 in his comeback season, the Broncos reeled off 11 straight wins before Rahim Moore’s blunder led to a double-overtime loss to Baltimore in the playoffs.
In 2013, an overtime loss at Foxborough sparked Denver’s Super Bowl run that included a 26-16 win over New England in the conference championship.
The Patriots’ trips to Colorado the last two regular seasons also served as harbingers for the Broncos’ playoffs hopes.
Brock Osweiler, who will be under center again Sunday night, replaced an injured Manning on Nov. 29, 2015, and led Denver’s comeback in a snowy 30-24 overtime win.
Manning was back starting two months later when the Broncos again hosted the Patriots and battered Brady in a 20-18 win that propelled Denver to its third Super Bowl title.
Manning called it a career a month later and Osweiler bolted to Houston, leaving Trevor Siemian to win the quarterback job.
He wasn’t up to the task when the Patriots visited Denver last year and Denver’s defense limited Brady to 16 completions and the Patriots to 16 points but the Broncos managed a mere field goal.
When Gary Kubiak asked afterward if anyone had anything to say, tackle Russell Okung rose and was shouted down by Aqib Talib, the fissure between the team’s all-star defense and anemic offense erupting in hot-tempered fury.
The Broncos were eliminated from the playoff race a week later and Kubiak decided to step down for health reasons. So, while Brady and Belichick were on their way to their fifth Super Bowl triumph, Elway was conducting his third coaching search in four years.
At 40, Brady remains as good as ever despite losing Julian Edelman and Malcom Mitchell to knee injuries.
Osweiler returned to Denver after an 18-month odyssey that included Houston’s hard-fought 34-16 loss to Brady in the playoffs.
A dozen turnovers sent Siemian to the bench last week and Joseph decided to stick with Osweiler this week despite his pair of interceptions that led to touchdowns in Denver’s 51-23 flop at Philadelphia.
“I don’t expect them to play like that against us,” Patriots running back James White said. “Every time we play them, it’s a four-quarter football game, not very high-scoring.”
Brady is seeking just his fourth win in 11 trips to Denver.
“There’s little margin of error when you go out there,” Brady said. “We’re going to have to play good. They have a great defense. They have great players on both sides of the ball. You can’t go out there and make a bunch of mistakes and expect to win.”
Desperate to save their season, these Broncos are as tough a challenge as the ones that were always jockeying with the Patriots for the AFC’s top playoff seed, Brady said.
“You learn a lot from losses,” Brady said, “and everyone wants to get the bad taste out of their mouth.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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