Here's a key matchup to watch in the Week 15 game between the Patriots and Broncos:
Broncos RB Willis McGahee vs. Patriots run defense
Denver's goal on Sunday is to keep Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense off the field as much as possible, and the Broncos have the league's No. 1 rushing offense.
Part of Denver's success has been the resurgence of McGahee in his ninth season in the NFL. McGahee is 80 yards from his first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2007 and is gaining 4.6 yards per carry. The bruising back was held in check by the Bears last week (17 rushes for 34 yards), but he has six 100-yard rushing games this season.
The Patriots' run defense is their strength, but it gave up 170 yards rushing to the Redskins last week, the most rushing yards allowed by the Pats all season. New England has held eight opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. The three games they allowed the most rushing yards this season, though, were all wins (at Oakland, vs. Kansas City and at Washington).
It has hurt the Pats to not have second-year MLB Brandon Spikes, one of the team's best run stoppers. He has missed five games in a row and is practicing with a plastic brace on his right knee. His status for Sunday is unknown.
Without Spikes, a larger onus falls on Jerod Mayo to man the middle of the defense. Up front, DTs Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork have done a good job and DE Andre Carter has set the edge, but teams have gained yards off right tackle and right end with ease. Opponents are rushing for less than four yards a carry up the middle and less than three off left guard, but have a 5.06-yard rushing average off right tackle and 6.48 off right end. Shaun Ellis and Brandon Deaderick will need to step up on the right side, along with LBs Rob Ninkovich, Tracy White and Dane Fletcher.
If McGahee can have success running the football, it will make things easier for Tim Tebow to throw the football. The Patriots don't have the personnel in the secondary to afford stuffing the box, so the front seven will need to do its job containing McGahee.
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