The last time the Patriots went into Denver, they were missing several key players who’ll they’ll have available this time. And that could make all the difference. For they’ll be playing in the Divisional Playoffs with a chance to go to their third straight AFC Championship Game. And critical additions to the regular lineup such as Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Corey Dillon, Ellis Hobbs, Kevin Faulk and Daniel Graham will narrow the gap that was apparent between the two teams in October. Throw in just a better performance than they had last time, and the fact they always seem to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, and their winning experience, and Denver will have its hands full with the Patriots this time now that January has arrived.

But it obviously will not be even close to easy for the Patriots to win this game. Denver has always been very difficult to beat at home. They are 8-0 there this year. They have a good team. They had a better regular season than the Patriots. But on the flip side, anyone who thinks it’ll be a repeat of Denver’s easy 28-20 victory, in which the final score didn’t reflect on the whole how badly Denver outplayed the Patriots through the first two and a half quarters of that game, really hasn’t been following the Patriots closely. Either this year or in past years. The team that lost to Denver in October was shorthanded. Several players were adjusting to new roles they are now more accustomed to. That goes for several coaches as well. This time, the Patriots may lose the game. But they won’t give up three 55-plus yard plays. They won’t be held to three points at the half and they won’t give up 178 yards rushing. They won’t fall 25 points down. And when the final whistle blows, they very well may be headed to that third straight AFC Championship Game to the surprise of anyone who had watched that earlier October game in Denver.

The Patriots really need to score early and often this time against Denver. And they’ll have to throw the ball to do it. Tom Brady has come up big time after time in playoff games, its time for him to do it again. To win this game, the Patriots will have to spread it out a lot, even on earlier downs. They’ll have to get multiple receivers on the field and not be afraid to throw to them downfield. You could see big games out of secondary receivers such as Andre Davis and Tim Dwight when they match up against Denver defensive backs lower on their depth chart such as Roc Alexander and Karl Paymah. These guys defininately can be taken advantage of.

But in order to do it, the Patriots will need to provide much better protection than they did last time against Denver. Although the Broncos did not sack Brady last game, they blitzed, harassed and hammered him all game long. There are reasons to believe the Patriots will do a better job on that this time. One is that Daniel Graham, an excellent blocking tight end, will be available this time. Corey Dillon, a good blitz pick up guy, also will play this time. Kevin Faulk can also help in this regard by catching those dump offs out of the backfield he is so good at. The Denver linebackers will have to be just slightly more conscious of Faulk’s ability to catch the ball, it may slow up their blitz just a little bit and give Brady the time he needs. Additionally, younger offensive linemen such as Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins (who was thrown out of the October game midway through) have more experience and should handle the blitz better.

And all this adds up to bad news for Denver. Brady with time will eat them alive. Although Champ Bailey at one corner is one of the best cover guys in the NFL, the rest of their secondary are average at best cover guys. This is particularly true with rookie corner Darrent Williams banged up, not at 100% and unable to start (though he will play). The Patriots receiver corp. will rip this unit to shreds and if Brady is on his game, the offense should score around 30 points easy.

A quick word about the running game. It is somewhat of an after thought for the Patriots this week, as Denver is number two in the league against the run and the Patriots haven’t been able to run it well most of the year anyways. But the Patriots will need to run a bit if they get the lead. They’ll need to try and pound it. I believe they can. They won’t put up huge numbers, but if they can convert short yardage situations and be around 100 yards for the game running, that’ll be more than enough out of this aspect of the game. It would be nice to see Corey Dillon look a little more like his old self and perhaps break a couple 10+ yard runs in this game. But, in the end, this game is going to have to be won on the right arm of Tom Brady on offense with some decent runs here and there, particularly on short yardage, mixed in.

Denver is a team that obviously wants to run the ball and is probably the team that has done it best in the NFL over the last decade or so. Everyone and their brother knows the Patriots will be pulling out all the stops in this game to try to limit their running game and force Denver into a one dimensional game. If the Patriots get the lead and shut down the running attack, it could be a long night for Denver quarterback Jake Plummer.

But Broncos coach Mike Shanahan knows that too. He isn’t foolish enough to simply line up and try to pound it exclusively from the opening gun on. No way. He is going to try to take some shots early on. He is going to throw some on first down early in the game. Let them take the lead. Let them back up the Patriots safeties and linebackers a little bit. Then run the ball.

So early in the game, the Patriots simply must find a way to get off the field and shut down the Denver passing game. They have to have some early down blitzes ready. They have to play tight coverage rather than loose coverage, less you let Plummer get in a rhythm. And they have to expect play action early in the game on early downs. Denver is going to come out on their first and second drive and try some downfield passing. You can count on it. The Patriots can’t be so hyped up to prove they can stop the run that they give up some long plays downfield. If they can show Denver it’s not going to be able to easily do whats not its strong point anyways, throwing the ball, Denver will go back to its old reliable, running the ball. Then the Patriots can sell out to stop the run and prove they can. But early on, they have to expect the unexpected.

And the way the Patriots front seven has been playing, they should do more than an acceptable job against the run this week. Don’t get caught off guard early. Control the line of scrimmage when Denver inevitably goes back to what they do best. Harass Jake Plummer into mistakes on third down, and the Patriots may just create some good field position with three and outs and turnovers on defense. That’ll play right into their hands and one gets the feeling Tom Brady won’t be denied on a short field in this game.

Its hard to predict the Patriots will dominate Denver. They’re on the road. Denver is a good team. They had a better season and won the first match up. But there is a lot to like about the way the Patriots are playing and this match up in general. If it comes down to special teams, you can’t ask for a better kicker than Adam Vinatierri to win it for you at the end. The Patriots return teams have shown some spark on returns in recent weeks with both Andre Davis and Tim Dwight doing the honors, one thinks they may have a big return in them this week as well.

The end result will be a Patriots victory. My initial thought on this game, early in the week, was Denver would win. But after looking at it more and more, I become convinced this is the type of game Tom Brady can have an all-time classic game and throw the ball all over the field. After thinking about how well the front seven on defense for the Patriots has played for quite awhile now, of course they’re going to do a good job on the running game and put pressure on Jake Plummer. And quite likely, they’ll get a lead in the third quarter and that is where they really have Denver in trouble. Denver will hit some plays on them. They’ll run well at times, but they won’t match the Patriots who’ll play their best game of the year in this round of the playoffs, just as they did last year against Indianapolis. Patriots win 30-20.