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History has shown that games against the Patriots are a litmus test

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

After a wild couple of weeks of rescheduling, the Denver Broncos will head to New England and play the Patriots this Sunday. This weekend, the Broncos will look to continue what they’ve been doing better than any team for the last two decades: Beat The Patriots.

The Broncos are coming off their first win. It was against the atrocious Jets, but there was reason to be optimistic. The offense scored regularly, and the defense played aggressively. The Broncos need to build off that win, but it won’t be easy.

Since Bill Belichick has taken over as head coach of the Patriots, the Broncos performances against the Patriots have served as a gauge to indicate where the Broncos stand in the NFL landscape.

The 2005 Broncos were 4-1 heading into a Week 6 game with the Patriots. The Patriots were the defending back-to-back Super Bowl champions and the Broncos were looking to make the jump from first-round playoff losers in 2003 and 2004 to a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

The Broncos beat the Patriots that day 28-20 in a game they controlled from the beginning. The victory over the Patriots proved to be no fluke, as the Broncos finished 13-3 and defeated the Patriots a second time in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game is best known for Nick Ferguson creating the pressure on Tom Brady that forced the quarterback to throw a pass that was intercepted by Champ Bailey and returned 99 yards.

The two victories over the Patriots that season established that Broncos team as one of the best in the league and they finished the season in the AFC Championship Game.

The 2011 season is one of the most memorable in Broncos history. That season is known for the improbable success of Tim Tebow as starting quarterback. After starting 1-4, Tebow would take over as the starting quarterback and the Broncos would win seven of their next eight games. As the Broncos racked up the victories, fans began to wonder if “Tebow Mania” would lead to postseason success.

The Broncos were riding a six-game winning stream when the Patriots came to Denver for a Week 15 showdown. The game wasn’t close, as the Patriots blew out the Broncos 41-25. While the miracle finishes of the Tebow season were exciting, they were not sustainable, and the Patriots brought the win streak to an end. The Broncos would lose their remaining two regular season games.

The Broncos still managed to make the playoffs and would pull off an upset victory over the defending AFC champion Steelers. The game was won when Tebow found Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard walk off touchdown in overtime to win the game.

What’s often not talked about is the next week, when the Broncos traveled to New England and were beat down 45-10 in a game that wasn’t as close as the store indicates (it was that bad).

While young and exciting, that Broncos team wasn’t close to being in the same conversation as the Patriots.

The 2014 Broncos were coming off an appearance in the Super Bowl and spent the offseason loading up on talent signing T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and Emmanuel Sanders. The Patriots also bolstered their roster, adding All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Week 9 matchup between the 6-2 Patriots and 6-1 Broncos was expected to be competitive and a preview of the AFC championship. The game wasn’t close, the Patriots crushed the Broncos 43-21. The Broncos never recovered from the loss and would be upset in the divisional round of the playoffs by the Indianapolis Colts.

Head coach John Fox parted ways with the Broncos after the season.

The 2015 Broncos were coming to the end of the Peyton Manning era. The Super Bowl window was closing. Manning was injured and wasn’t playing particularly well prior to the injury. With Manning on the bench, and Brock Osweiler making first starts at quarterback, the Broncos defense had to prove that it could be the driving force behind a Super Bowl run.

The Patriots came to Denver in Week 12 with a 10-0 record to take on the 8-2 Broncos. With injuries to Manning, Ward and Ware, the Broncos found a way to defeat the Patriots in overtime. The win would propel the Broncos to the No. 1 seed in the AFC and they would beat the Patriots again, this time in the AFC Championship Game.

The ability to compete with the Patriots has always had an impact on the direction of the Broncos season. In 2005 and 2015, the Broncos proved they were primed to make a deep playoff run. The games against the Patriots in 2011 and 2014 were reality checks that the team had to improve if they wanted to achieve their goals.

While Brady is no longer in New England, head coach Bill Belichick is still in charge. Without Brady, Belichick has coached his team to a 3-1 record. The lone loss came on a Monday night to the Chiefs in a game they played without starting quarterback Cam Newton. The final score of 26-10 is not an indicator of how close that game was contested.

Even with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski playing in Tampa Bay, this is still the New England Patriots and they are still a very good football team.

The narrative surrounding the Broncos (created by others, not the Broncos themselves) is that the Broncos are a good football team that’s caught some bad breaks. At some point, they need to make the transition from down-on-their-luck sob story to a winning football team.

If the Broncos get beat by the Patriots on Sunday, we’ll know this team isn’t close. How a team performs against the Patriots is an honest assessment. Games against a Belichick team are not flukes. The Patriots will not beat themselves and you will not luck your way into beating them. A victory over the Patriots is earned and a sign of a mentally tough and prepared team.

The Patriots are patient and will wait for their opponent to make a mistake and capitalize. There have been countless teams in the last 20 years that have had leads on the Patriots only to crumble in the fourth quarter. The 2013 Broncos, the highest scoring team of all-time, managed to squander a 24-0 first half lead and lose.

If the Broncos lose on Sunday, it’s because they are not ready to compete with the league’s best teams. The Patriots hold up the mirror to their opponent and show them exactly who they are. In the event the Broncos lose, the excuse makers will be lined up with reasons to explain away why we should all be excited about a 1-4 team. A loss would not be because of injuries, a rebuild or the need to “give it some time.” A loss will mean the Broncos are not ready to compete with the league’s best.

This weekend gives the Broncos the opportunity to find out if they are ready to turn this season around or face the sobering reality that they are once again on their way to a disappointing ending.

In their victory against the Jets, the Broncos showed progress. It was maybe the most-impressive game Vic Fangio has coached. The Jets are awful, but that win required the Broncos to dig deep and respond. The Broncos need to take that same attitude to New England.

Some people say the Broncos have nothing to lose, they have a lot to lose. With the Chiefs next on the schedule, the Broncos season is on the line. If the Broncos can beat the Patriots in New England, they can save their season and prove that they can beat anybody.

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