DENVER -- On Sunday, Nov. 25, 2015, the Broncos hosted the undefeated New England Patriots. The game would help determine home-field advantage in the playoffs. Tonight, the Patriots return with similarly high stakes in Denver. The Broncos' season hangs in the balance, a fifth-straight loss virtually eliminating them from the playoff conversation.
Twenty-three months ago, Osweiler made his home starting debut for the Broncos. He rallied in the second half, finishing with comparable stats to Tom Brady. The Broncos won in Osweiler's first home start. Tonight, feels like his last stand.
With that, let's look at my Denver7 keys to a Broncos victory.
1) Play clean
The Broncos rank 31st in turnover margin at minus-12. Their offense has fizzled for weeks, sitting near the bottom in points per game (18.8), sacks allowed (28) and interceptions (12). The Patriots pride themselves on consistency, and capitalizing on opponents' mistakes. Commit a single turnover, and it's unlikely the Broncos' win.
2) Stay physical, boring
The Broncos admitted they are searching for an identity offensively. Well, there's no easy answer on ancestry.com. It starts in the meeting rooms with a philosophical shift. The Broncos must focus on the run. They do not -- I repeat, do not -- have the personnel to consistently run three wide sets. It leads to three-and-outs, quarterback hits, sacks and picks. C.J. Anderson is poised for a rebound performance if his ankle cooperates with Devontae Booker continuing to get more reps. And for the ninth straight week, can Jamaal Charles get involved in the passing game?
3) Soften up for play action
The Patriots' defensive statistics are more misleading than an infomercial. They allow an NFL-worst 417 yards per game. However, they have shown elasticity over the past month, yielding 51 points over four straight wins. They will bend, but have improved dramatically in the red zone. For Osweiler to succeed, play action remains critical. Can he find Emmanuel Sanders on a post?
4) Cover Gronk
The Broncos have turned guarding tight ends into a confusing game of hide-and-seek. They rank 25th in coverage against tight ends. Time to take chances and use corneback Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in some sets vs. Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has five touchdowns in the Patriots' six wins, and zero in their losses. If you see a vapor trail of barbells, muscle shirts, energy drinks and Axe body spray on Sunday night at Mile High Stadium, the Broncos have lost.
5) Back to back
While Mike McCoy receives criticism for his game plans, first-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods must improve as well. The game got fast on him last Sunday in Philadelphia as the Eagles exploited mismatches. Woods and crew must have a sound plan to cover New England's running backs. Brady has completed less than 50 percent of his passes with one touchdown in his last two games in Denver. To keep Brady in check, the Broncos have to blanket the backs. James White leads the Patriots with 43 receptions, and the Broncos have had issues covering backs and tight ends with their linebackers and safeties.
6) Play smart
It's bad enough the Broncos make physical mistakes. The mental errors, however, have become paralyzing. The Broncos had four offsides penalties last week, and Garett Bolles continues to draw a flurry of flags. Breaking a losing streak requires attention to detail. That means eliminating foolish gaffes.
7) Play to the crowd
The Broncos' fans want a chance to get behind this team. Give them a reason. Score early. Turn up the volume. Make life difficult for Brady. It has worked in the past, with pressure and hits leading to errant throws. The Broncos have too much pride not to play well tonight, but I don't believe it will be enough to eclipse the Patriots.