The champions are coming. The Denver Broncos will play the New England Patriots, who have won the past two Super Bowls and three of the past four, in an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday night at Invesco Field at Mile High.
Denver, which is the second seed in the AFC and had a first-round bye, would have played Cincinnati but the Bengals lost Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Indianapolis is the AFC’s top seed and plays the lowest remaining seed, which is Pittsburgh. That leaves Denver to battle New England, which struggled early in the season because of injuries. Late in the season, the Patriots played like they did during their Super Bowl seasons. New England beat Jacksonville 28-3 on Saturday for its NFL-record 10th straight playoff win. “They were still a great team, even with injured people, but now they’re a more enthusiastic and ener- getic team now that their key players and role players are actually healthy,” Broncos safety Nick Ferguson said. “That gives you a chance, saying ‘We can compete now at full strength.’” The Patriots won six of their last eight regular-season games. New England lost by two points to Miami in its regular-season finale, but used backup rookie quarterback Matt Cassel after the first quarter and rested many other starters. The Broncos beat New England 28-20 on Oct. 16, but running backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and receiver Troy Brown didn’t play because of injuries. New England fell behind 28-3 in that game but rallied in the fourth quarter. Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said he thought the Patriots played better on offense late in the season because Dillon was healthy and took some pressure off quarterback Tom Brady. “It makes a difference,” Coyer said. “It makes the quarterback better, and he’s playing good enough as it is.” Dillon didn’t start against Jacksonville. Faulk, who is faster than Dillon, rushed for 51 yards and Dillon had 40. The Broncos have played the Patriots well, even as New England has dominated the NFL. In 2001, New England’s first Super Bowl season, the Broncos beat the Patriots 31-20. Denver beat New England 24-16 in 2002, and almost beat the Patriots with third-string quarterback Danny Kanell in 2003 — Brady threw a touchdown in the final minute to beat Denver 30-26. New England lost four of its first eight games before some key players got healthy. The Patriots finished very strong, especially on defense. Starting with a 16-3 win Dec. 4 against the New York Jets, the Patriots have allowed seven or fewer points in four of their past six games, including Saturday’s playoff win. New England is attempting to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, and the Patriots appear to be peaking in the playoffs. “If I’m on New England’s team, no matter what kind of losing streak you’ve been on, all you’re saying is ‘Get in,’” Ferguson said. “‘We’ve got the experience, we’ve been there before,’ and that’s their perspective.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-4891 or firstname.lastname@example.org