Whenever the New England Patriots played the Indianapolis Colts, and later the Denver Broncos, the entire week leading to the game revolved around one thing: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.

Over the years the two quarterbacks would do everything they could to deflect that attention. But it was always there. With two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history facing each other, it was always the story heading into the game.

Not this year.

As the Patriots (10-0) prepare to play the Broncos (8-2) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday night, they’re not focused on Manning, who’s not even going to play, his back and foot injuries finally forcing the Broncos to turn to Brock Osweiler. No, their focus is rightfully on Denver’s defense.

“Defensively, they are pretty much at the top of the league in every category,” said Coach Bill Belichick.

And the Patriots are wounded offensively, their corps of wide receivers down to a healthy two – Brandon LaFell and rookie Chris Harper. Julian Edelman has a broken foot. Danny Amendola sprained his left knee last Monday night and Aaron Dobson suffered an ankle injury in the same game. Dobson is now on injured reserve, and Amendola will not play.

It’s not a particularly great matchup for Brady and the Patriots.

Consider these statistics:

 The Broncos rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game (18.3), right behind the league-leading Patriots (18.2).

 The Broncos lead the NFL in sacks (34), just ahead of the second-ranked Patriots (32).

The Broncos rank second in forced fumbles (15).

The Broncos’ pass defense ranks first in the NFL, allowing 190.6 yards per game.

The Broncos’ defense ranks first overall in the NFL, allowing 284.3 yards per game.

The Broncos rank first in average yards per play (4.4).

The Broncos rank eighth in defensive third-down efficiency (34.8 percent).

Yet, the Broncos probably have not faced an offense like New England’s this year.

The Patriots rank first in passing (320.4 yards), second in points (32.3), third in yards per play (6.2) and third in total yards (412.4).

But this isn’t the same Patriots offense that compiled many of those statistics. Belichick knows the Patriots have work to do.

“They rush well. They cover well,” he said. “You don’t have all day and they’re well coached and they’ve got good players.”

He said essentially the same thing last year, when the Broncos came into Gillette Stadium and the Patriots ran away with a 43-21 victory as Brady threw for four touchdowns. Eight of the 11 defensive starters return for the Broncos (although DeMarcus Ware has a back injury and will not play Sunday) and you’ve got to believe they’ve watched that game film a couple of times this week.

And they probably watched New England’s 20-13 victory over Buffalo last Monday a lot, too.

The Bills blitzed Brady relentlessly, knocked him down 10 times, sacked him another, and forced him to throw the ball into the ground on several other plays.

The NFL is a notorious copycat league. If one team exposes another team’s weakness, every opponent will do the same until the problem is fixed.

Denver already blitzes a lot, perhaps as much as any team in the league, because it has faith that its cornerbacks – Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., with Bradley Roby the nickel corner – can cover anyone man-to-man. Expect Denver to turn it up even more this week.

So how do the Patriots beat the Broncos’ defense?

Well, conventional wisdom says you throw those quick crossing routes underneath, which allow the receiver to run with the ball after he catches it. Problem is, the Patriots’ best receivers in those plays are Edelman and Amendola. Running back James White, who scored his first two NFL touchdowns against Buffalo, could be a factor catching passes out of the backfield.

You can beat the blitz with an effective running game, but the Patriots have stumbled there lately. After rushing for 161 yards in a 27-10 win over Washington three weeks ago, the Patriots have combined for 162 the last two weeks. They need more production from the running backs against Denver, if simply to keep the front seven from teeing off with a pass rush.

And that leads us to the offensive line. The Patriots have had to mix and match most of the year because of injuries, shuffling combinations in and out, sometimes within the same series.

Tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon returned to the lineup last week against Buffalo, but the line was still overmatched most of the night.

Maybe some of that is because the Patriots had players just returning from injuries. Even Bryan Stork, last year’s starting center, is just getting into game shape after missing the first seven games with injuries.

But the Patriots need to figure out who the starting five should be and settle on that group. Certainly they can continue to rotate players at times, but they need a consistent starting group to develop some cohesion and keep the pressure off Brady.

The Patriots have some incentive this week. They could clinch their seventh consecutive AFC East championship, or at least a playoff spot, with a win. They could join five others teams who clinched a division title after 11 games – including the 2007 Patriots – since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978. But that’s not their focus. It’s all on Denver.

“They are very aggressive,” said Brady. “I don’t think there’s anything the offense can really do to dictate what they do defensively. They just call their defense. Then they try to tear your head off.”


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