FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos for the first time since their AFC Championship Game loss that left quarterback Tom Brady battered after absorbing an eye-opening 17 hits, and there's strong evidence to believe this trip could end with a more favorable result for them.
It can be summed up in four words.
Much. Improved. Running. Game.
The Patriots were a one-dimensional offense by the end of last year, the season-ending injuries to running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis leaving them with Steven Jackson, James White and Brandon Bolden as their top running back options. It was telling that Brady finished that game as the team's leading rusher (13 yards).
Things are different in 2016, as evidenced by what unfolded in the Patriots' most recent victory, as 30-23 decision over the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football. The Patriots ran the ball well against the NFL's No. 1-rated run defense, led by the hard-charging-but-also-elusive Blount, putting the exclamation mark on their performance by running out the clock.
"We always talk about trying to be a tough football team and I think there is no better measure of your toughness on offense than your ability to run the ball when the other team knows you're going to run it," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, also noting Blount's solid ball security. "Our guys have really tried to embrace that challenge."
In doing so, the Patriots have elevated to a No. 7 NFL ranking in rushing yards per game (115.5) with three weeks remaining in the season.
For perspective, at this time last year, the Patriots ranked 27th in that category (90.6).
This figures to be the key Sunday in Denver, a venue that hasn't always been kind to the Patriots. When it gets loud, and Von Miller can pin his ears back and rush the passer with relentless abandon, the Patriots haven't often fared well.
This balanced attack for the Patriots is as well equipped to handle the challenges of Denver as any team in recent memory. They have as deep a stable of running backs as they've had in recent memory, a physical offensive line that has grown together by starting the same combination seven straight weeks and a willingness to stick with the ground game even when it doesn't always produce immediate results.
There's one other key factor in play: The Broncos' run defense ranks 29th in the NFL, surrendering an average of 127.2 yards per game.
So the formula seems clear-cut for the Patriots as they officially begin their preparations for Sunday's AFC title game rematch with a light walkthrough practice on Wednesday inside the Empower Fieldhouse.
It all starts with the Blount-led running attack.