Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. (turf, outdoors)
When: Sunday, 4:25 ET (CBS)
Spread: Patriots by 6.5
Forecast: Cloudy with a 60 percent chance of rain; temperatures hovering between 48 and 52 degrees.
2012 records: Broncos (Overall: 2-2; AFC West 1-0); Patriots (Overall: 2-2, AFC East: 1-0)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Dec. 18, 2011: Patriots 41, Broncos 23; Jan. 14, 2012 (divisional playoff): Patriots 45, Broncos 10. Series record: Broncos hold a 25-17 edge.
What matters: Those who attended the Broncos -Patriots divisional playoff last Jan. 14 will recognize a fair amount of the names they'll see on jerseys Sunday: Thomas, Bailey, Miller, Dumervil, et. al. But they won't recognize the Broncos' style of play -- especially on offense, where the up-tempo, no-huddle, precise-strike attack led by Peyton Manning has turned last year's top-ranked rushing team into a balanced one that tends to favor the pass. The Broncos have lost three of their last four to the Patriots, and the losses were by an average of 29 points. But Manning has won five of his last seven against the Patriots, including two of three at Gillette Stadium, as New England's defense has struggled to keep pace.
Who matters: Manning will try and dice up the Patriots in much the same manner as Tom Brady does to his foes: by spreading the football around. Denver has the only pair of receivers with 320 yards already this season (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker), and he's completed 22 passes to TEs Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, putting them on pace for 88 receptions -- which would be 26 more than all Broncos tight ends had in the previous two seasons combined. But the Broncos need the Manning of last week (130.0 rating), not the one of Week 2 against Atlanta, when he threw three first-quarter interceptions. The Broncos have to be on guard for a repeat, as New England leads the AFC in takeaways (11).
Denver's defensive challenge will be keeping pace with the Patriots' array of targets. Look for nickelback Chris Harris to spend most of his day covering Wes Welker, with Champ Bailey likely drawing Brandon Lloyd more often than not. The question the Broncos must answer is how to cover Rob Gronkowski, who along with fellow TE Aaron Hernandez burned the Broncos last year. Look for the burden to be shared among their safeties and linebackers -- and even CB Tracy Porter from time to time.
Key matchup: The Broncos didn't muster much pressure on Brady in the playoffs, but did sack him twice when they met in the regular season last Dec. 18. All of the Broncos' pressure will have to come from the edges, where DE Elvis Dumervil and SLB/DE Von Miller have combined for 5.5 sacks this season. The Broncos will shift Miller and Dumervil around, meaning that New England LT Nate Solder and RT Sebastian Vollmer will have to contend with each. Miller wasn't a factor against the Patriots last year, but in those games he was hindered by a club cast on his hand after he tore thumb ligaments. He's healthy and more effective now.
Injuries of note: RG Chris Kuper is probable as he completes his recovery from a fractured left forearm, but he practiced fully on Thursday and Friday. That's the first full work he's had all year; his training-camp repetitions were limited because he was working back from a fractured fibula and torn ankle ligaments … WR Matt Willis practiced all week after missing last Sunday with a left hamstring strain and is probable … Backup LB Nate Irving is expected to play after missing last Sunday's game because of a concussion.
Inside stuff: The potential absence of Hernandez -- he's questionable because of an ankle injury -- helps the Broncos considerably. But Gronkowski still causes problems. The Broncos might try to use Miller on him in man coverage from time to time. Miller has struggled covering tight ends this year; he allowed a preseason touchdown to San Francisco's Vernon Davis and a Week 3 score to Houston's Owen Daniels. But Miller is the only Broncos linebacker with the speed and size to match up with Gronkowski.
Connections: C Dan Koppen played for the Patriots from 2003-11 … CB Tony Carter was on the Patriots' practice squad most of 2010, but also played in two games … Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was Denver's head coach from 2009-10 … New England WR Brandon Lloyd was with the Broncos from 2009 until a midseason trade to St. Louis in 2011 … Patriots TE Daniel Fells spent 2011 with the Broncos.
Stat you should know: After winning five of six games in Foxborough from 1991-2006, the Broncos have lost their last two games there by a combined 86-17 margin.
Record watch: The next time Manning leads a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, he'll tie Dan Marino for first all-time with 47.
Looking ahead: A trip to the extreme opposite corner of the 48 contiguous states follows when the Broncos go to San Diego. A split of this two-game road swing would keep the Broncos in position to seize the division title.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Broncos 27