Week after week, the New England Patriots (3-2) seem to be playing for their football lives. Now they are on the road for the fourth time in five weeks, and they play a Denver Broncos team (4-1) that has won four games in a row. Still, the Patriots remain an elite team until proven otherwise and the Broncos are trying to get there.
On offense, the Patriots have been relying on passing, the Broncos on running. Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback, remains efficient despite a sore shoulder. Last week, he passed for 350 yards and three touchdowns, as the Patriots sneaked by the Atlanta Falcons on a field goal with 17 seconds left. Patrick Kerney, the Falcons' defensive end, said of Brady, "When you hit a guy square on his shirt and he's still hitting the receiver, it's frustrating."
Coach Bill Belichick said his Patriots must contend with a pressure defense he likened to those of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the San Diego Chargers and the Falcons. To dominate the Broncos, the Patriots need a solid game from Corey Dillon, who rushed for 106 yards against the Falcons before injuring an ankle. Dillon appears sound again.
The Broncos' offense has not turned over the ball in three games. That was key last week because the revamped defense surrendered 447 yards and 28 first downs to the Washington Redskins before winning at the end. Tatum Bell, the latest of the Broncos' seemingly endless fountain of running backs, carries the offensive load with Jake Plummer, a mobile rather than classic quarterback.
Plummer passed for only 92 yards against the Redskins and has not gone over 250 yards since the season opener. He is an escape artist who does not hesitate to run, but as he said, "We have to establish the run, play action, get me out of the pocket so whatever they are trying to do to stop that, we have to adjust to that." In other words, get the yards before the Patriots' defense gets you.
The Broncos play especially well in the thin air of Denver.
Washington (3-1) at
Kansas City (2-2)
Are the Redskins as good as their record? Probably not. Are the Chiefs better than theirs? Maybe. Against the Broncos last Sunday, the Redskins got 322 passing yards from Marc Brunell and gave up only 257 yards and 11 first downs. Still, the Redskins lost when their 2-point conversion pass was batted away with 69 seconds left.
As Brunell said: "This one is going to hurt. It's supposed to hurt."
The Chiefs can't protect their passer, Trent Green, but the return of offensive tackle Willie Roaf should help.
Jacksonville (3-2) at
Although the serious-looking knee injury to Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers on Monday night was only a hyperextension, the quarterback may not play this week.
His receiver, Hines Ward, said, "He's lying there hurt on the ground, and he said to me, `At least we're in field-goal range.'"
If Roethlisberger doesn't start, Charlie Batch will. Tailback Jerome Bettis' return helped the Steelers win the Monday game against the Chargers. The Jaguars, with efficient defense, handed the Bengals their first defeat.
Miami (2-2) at
Tampa Bay (4-1)
Both teams are coming off bad games. The Dolphins, with 18 penalties and five turnovers, lost to the Bills, and linebacker Zach
Thomas said: "We killed ourselves on defense. Let them beat you, don't let yourself beat you."
The Buccaneers, in losing to the Jets, finished with four field goals, no touchdowns and 2-for-14 conversions on third down.
The Buccaneers look for the return of Cadillac Williams, their injured rookie tailback, who was limited to 13 yards two weeks ago and was forced to sit out last week's game.
NY Giants (3-1) at Dallas (3-2)
These old rivals are starting to improve behind one young quarterback (Eli Manning of the Giants) and one recycled (Drew Bledsoe of the Cowboys).
The Giants, always known for defense, are averaging 34 points, with a 12-2 edge in turnovers. Last week, the Cowboys gave the Eagles a sound beating, holding the NFL's then No. 1 offense (432 yards a game) to 19 yards rushing and 129 total yards.
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