The Broncos have lost four straight games
This isn't the Patriots-Broncos get-togethers we became accustomed to during the four years Peyton Manning was in Denver, a stretch that included six head-to-head meetings and Lombardi Trophies for each organization. Manning retired after the 2015 season but Tom Brady remains (and at 40, there's no indication that he won't, in fact, play forever) and the Patriots are still one of the NFL's best teams.
The same can't be said for the Broncos, currently 3-5, losers of four straight, and occupants of the AFC West cellar.
If Denver is going to turn the season around, it has to start on Sunday night. The good news is that the Broncos have won two of their last three meetings against the Patriots. The bad news is that Manning was under center for both wins and he isn't coming back. And the "break in case of emergency" contingency plans included Trevor Siemian and now Brock Osweiler.
Denver's offense is one of the worst in the league; the unit ranks 27th in passing, 18th in rushing and 25th overall, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. Things were so anemic that first-year coach Vance Joseph benched Siemian before last week's game against the Eagles and turned to Osweiler, who was Manning's backup from 2012-15, left for his big payday in 2016 and returned earlier this season after forgettable stints with the Texans and Browns.
In Osweiler's first start of the season, he was 19 of 38 for 205 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. The Broncos were demolished by the Eagles, 51-23. But with few options, Joseph is sticking with Osweiler against the Pats.
"I thought Brock had an excellent week of preparation,'' Joseph said Monday, via ESPN.com. "It felt good to our team, it was a confident week, the energy was there, it was detailed. ... Brock's experience Brock's personality really helped our team bounce back and gave us confidence going into this week. I think Brock's earned [another start] from that standpoint."
Not surprisingly, Osweiler welcomes the opportunity to play, something he couldn't get with the Browns earlier this year.
"Absolutely, I think every player in the National Football League plays this game to be the starter, to contribute to his team, to help their football team win games,'' Osweiler said. "So, I would love to be the starter of this football team. I can promise you that [the Eagles] game is not going to discourage me. I'm going to work harder than ever to clean up these problems and get us back in the win column."
Winning would be a welcome change.
"Definitely sick and tired of losing," Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said this week. "There's a sense of urgency. We know what time it is. We have a chance to do something special. ... We have the players to do it. We have the roster to do it. It's not like it can't be done or it will never be done. It's been done before with a lot of other teams with a lot less talent. We have the talent."
Anderson's mostly right. The Broncos have Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. And the defense, despite last week's lapse, remains one of the NFL's best. But until the Broncos find their franchise quarterback, mediocrity will be their calling card.
Unlike previous iterations, this Pats outfit isn't invulnerable. The offense continues to chug along -- it's ranked No. 1, according to Football Outsiders (1st in passing, 12th in rushing), but the defense is 31st. Brady is the league's best quarterback -- ahead of Carson Wentz, Drew Brees, Alex Smith and every other NFL passer -- but he's not overlooking the Broncos.
"There's little margin for error when you go out there," Brady said. "They have a great defense. They have great players on both sides of the ball. You can't go out there and make a bunch of mistakes and expect to win."
Brady could be without one of his key targets. Chris Hogan (shoulder) missed practice time this week. Other players either missing time or practicing on a limited basis were defensive tackle Malcom Brown (ankle), tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) and cornerback Stephen Gilmore (concussion).
The Broncos are 7.5-point home underdogs. Four of eight CBSSports.com experts expect Denver to cover though only one of them thinks the Broncos will win. Pete Prisco is not that expert:
This would normally be a big-time game, but the Broncos haven't held up their end of it. They are struggling in a big way on offense and the defense has even regressed. The Patriots are coming off a bye, so they are rested. Tom Brady has struggled at times in Denver, and he might here. The Pats get the win, but the Broncos manage to keep it close. -- Prisco, who has the Patriots winning, 24-20.
You can view all the expert picks here.