Denver Broncos (1-1) at New England Patriots (2-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 39th meeting. The Denver Broncos have a 23-15 record against the New England Patriots in the regular season. The Broncos have also won both playoff games, in 1986 and last season. The Broncos beat the Patriots 13-10 in 1960, in the first game in American Football League history.
2006 rankings: Broncos: offense 19th (4th rush, 29th pass); defense 15th (24th rush, 7th pass). Patriots: offense 12th (3rd rush, 20th pass); defense 13th (9th rush, 18th pass)
WEATHER: Weather. com , Weather Underground
LOCATION: Gillette Stadium
Keys to the game: The Broncos are averaging 5.0 yards per carry, but that hasn't translated into success for QB Jake Plummer, who usually thrives off the play-action pass. Coach Mike Shanahan had a very conservative game plan last week, but Plummer will have to make more plays to knock off the Patriots on the road. New England is wary of the speed and quickness of RB Tatum Bell, who had 114 rushing yards in the first meeting last year, and will focus first on stopping the run and putting the game in Plummer's hands to win -- or lose.
The Patriots' offense continues to be led by the tandem of RBs Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, which doesn't figure to change until QB Tom Brady feels more comfortable with his new receiving corps. Those receivers could struggle to gain much separation against strong Broncos CBs Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams.
Fast Facts: Broncos: One of just three opponents to have a winning record in Gillette Stadium. ... Lead the series 23-15 and have won four of the past five meetings. Patriots: Franchise record of 357-356-9 is above .500 for the first time since 1968. ... Are 31-6 (.838) in Gillette Stadium.
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-17
--WR Rod Smith practiced again on Thursday and is still probable to play this week. Smith suffered a mild concussion last week against Kansas City.
--DE Courtney Brown participated in the early warmup portion of practice on Thursday but missed the team portion of practice. Brown has an injured knee and likely won't play this week. The team will reevaluate him after the bye.
--CB Darrent Williams has 10 yards on three punt returns this year. Williams said he isn't worried, he has confidence in his blockers and feels close to breaking a long return.
--RB Tatum Bell had one of his best days as a pro against New England last year. Bell had 114 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries, and he had a 68-yard run. Bell has 172 yards in two games this season.
--LT Matt Light missed his second straight day of practice. Light is listed as probable (knee) for Sunday's game. If Light can't go and Nick Kaczur -- who has been inactive for the first two games -- and is still questionable for Sunday because of his shoulder isn't ready, the team will have to start inexperienced Wesley Britt or move G Logan Mankins to tackle and use Russ Hochstein in his place at guard.
--WR's Chad Jackson and Doug Gabriel continue to be listed on the injury report with hamstring injuries. Jackson is questionable and Gabriel probable for Sunday night's game, although both played last week and are expected to suit up against the Broncos.
--As usual, QB Tom Brady is listed as probable (shoulder) but will start against the Broncos this Sunday.
--Everyone listed on the Patriots' injury report missed a portion of Thursday's practice except for Brady.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Paul Ernster is taking advantage of an opportunity he wasn't sure would ever come.
Ernster has filled in respectably for Todd Sauerbrun while Sauerbrun serves a four-game NFL suspension. Last year Ernster kicked off in one game, then tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee before the second game.
Sauerbrun, one of the top punters in the NFL, handled kickoffs after Ernster was injured and did a good job. The Broncos usually like their punter to handle kickoffs to save a roster spot and Ernster was coming off a major injury, so he didn't know before Sauerbrun was suspended if he'd get another opportunity.
"You're always worried this is your last shot, your last go around," Ernster said. "After the ACL, you get down because you're hurt pretty significantly. You're thinking about a lot of stuff and wondering if you're going to be done."
Ernster punted well in the preseason and earned the job to replace Sauerbrun. He said punting and kicking off in the season opener at St. Louis was special because he had come back from his ACL surgery to kick in the NFL again.
"It was very nice," Ernster said. "It was like a breath of fresh air. You come off an ACL and you're questioning what's going to happen, and you get back out there in a real game in the regular season and you're like 'I made it.'"
Ernster had another solid day against dangerous Kansas City returner Dante Hall in Week 2, which was a tough assignment. The Broncos are anxious to get Sauerbrun back because he is a difference maker on special teams, but Ernster hasn't given them much reason to panic while Sauerbrun is out.
"We knew going in we were going to be without Todd, so the job Paul's doing has been tremendous," linebacker Keith Burns said. "He's been eager since he missed last year messing up his knee."
When the New England Patriots traded up with the Green Bay Packers early in the second round and made receiver Chad Jackson the 36th pick in the draft, excitement started to build around New England.
However, the excitement over Jackson catching passes from Tom Brady this season was quickly tempered. The rookie suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of all but three practices during training camp and caused Jackson to miss the Patriots four preseason games, along with the season opener against the Bills.
The waiting game finally came to an end in Week 2. Jackson made his NFL debut against the Jets and after one game, he proved to be well worth the wait. The rookie made an immediate impact, catching two passes for 42 yards, including his first NFL touchdown.
"It was a relief to just get in the game," Jackson said. "As a rookie, you never think you're going to get that much playing time but, at the same time, getting the catch and scoring a touchdown, that's a great feeling for me."
Once he finally got on the field, it didn't take long for Jackson to make an impression. He made an acrobatic 29-yard reception when he went over the back of Jets cornerback Justin Miller to secure the ball early in the first quarter. The catch gave the Patriots momentum and eventually led to a touchdown that put them ahead 7-0.
"I thought Chad did a nice job," Brady said. "He made a nice catch on the fade early on. We're going to need more of that out of him."
As with any rookie, there are going to be bumps in the road. Jackson did make two big receptions against the Jets but he also had a key drop. With just over a minute to go in the first half and the ball at midfield, Brady threw a perfectly thrown pass deep down the middle to a wide-open Jackson for what would have been an easy touchdown. The only problem on the play was the ball bounced off Jackson's hands instead of giving the Patriots a 17-0 lead.
"It was a rookie mistake," Jackson said when speaking about his drop after the game. "I lost focus on the ball when the defensive back put his hand up. It was a good throw by Tom, a good read. That's a play I could have made."
Jackson obviously didn't let the drop get to him. Four plays later he redeemed himself by catching a 13-yard touchdown pass from Brady to put the Patriots ahead 17-0 heading into halftime. After the game, Jackson displayed the confidence that all great receivers possess.
"I came back on the next play and scored a touchdown, so I made up for the drop."
Because he missed so much time in the offseason due to the hamstring injury, Jackson still isn't where he wants to be right now. However, with Deion Branch now in Seattle, the big, strong receiver with blazing speed knows there's a good opportunity for him to contribute in New England as long as he continues to work hard.
"It took a long time for the injury to heal," Jackson said. "A good player comes out and works hard and that's what I did. I just kept my mind focused on what I was doing and what I needed to do and I came back strong. I wouldn't say Tom and I are on the same page right now. We still have a lot of work to do. I need to keep doing what I'm doing so I can get everything down and continue to improve."
This week's game will be much tougher for the rookie as he faces a formidable Broncos secondary led by Pro Bowl corner Champ Bailey. Jackson took one step forward against the Jets and he'll need to continue to make plays if the Patriots passing game is going to take off not only against the Broncos on Sunday, but future opponents as well.
"Tom is a little frustrated right now about how the offense is still struggling, especially in the passing game," Jackson said. "He wants it to be like a Super Bowl passing offense, what it used to be. We all have to keep working hard to get it back to that level."
Jackson may still have a ways to go before he learns the entire
offense, but he's already well versed in the ways of the Patriots
organization. When asked if he was talking to the media on Wednesday, the rookie
replied as he quickly left the locker room, "No, it's a big week man.
They don't let rookies talk."
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