Patriots Will Have to Find a New Way to Beat Broncos Without Welker, Hernandez

Sayre Bedinger

Jan 14, 2012; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) and wide receiver Wes Welker (83) celebrate after a touchdown during the second half of the 2011 AFC divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Broncos beat the Patriots, they were wearing those fugly yellow and brown jerseys and Kyle Orton was playing quarterback. Brandon Marshall was a Broncos wide receiver and Andra Davis was starting at linebacker.

Times have certainly changed.

But not only have times changed for the Broncos, times have really changed for the Patriots as well. The obvious major matchup in this game is Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but while this is Brady/Manning part 14, it’s only part two with Manning in orange and blue. Another obvious change is the fact that Wes Welker is playing for the Denver Broncos, not the New England Patriots. That’s a huge swing for both teams–a big improvement for the Broncos and obviously a significant downgrade for the Patriots.

The other player missing from this game–and this will seem like an overly obvious statement–is tight end Aaron Hernandez, who obviously was the focus of a horrific offseason incident where he was charged with murder. The details of that awful case are obviously still being worked out, but if there have been any two players that have been a thorn in the Broncos’ side the last two seasons, it’s been Welker and Hernandez, neither of whom will be suiting up for the Patriots on Sunday night.

Welker will be helping the Broncos out, and Hernandez will have to see if he can get some TV privileges for updates on the game. Just to back up this claim with statistical proof, you look back at the Broncos’ two matchups with New England in 2010 and Hernandez came up huge, racking up 13 catches for 184 yards, two touchdowns, and six carries for 77 yards. Yeah, you forgot Hernandez was beating us out of the backfield too until I brought that up, didn’t you?

In 2012, Hernandez didn’t play against the Broncos in the teams’ week five matchup, but Welker did, and he came up huge. In the Pats’ 31-21 win over Denver, Welker was targeted a team-high 15 times and had 13 catches, racking up 104 yards and a touchdown to beat the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.

Needless to say, it will be a new crew that is trying to get the upper hand on the Broncos in this game. Julian Edelman leads the team in targets, catches, and yards, but Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins (both rookies) are tied for the team lead with four touchdowns apiece.

Rob Gronkowski has spent most of the season injured, and he has been limited at practices this week with a variety of things bothering him.

It will be a combination of Gronk, Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dobson, Thompkins, and backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen that try to beat Denver this time around, and if Gronk is healthy and ready to go, you have to figure he’ll be the primary target. Otherwise, Brady will try to work the slot with Edelman and Amendola, and take a couple of shots downfield to Dobson and Thompkins.

Compared to years past, this unit doesn’t really scare me all that much. Who scares me is Tom Brady, arguably the greatest QB to ever play the game, and Broncos fans know a little something about that.

With new offensive focal points, the Patriots are going to be showing the Broncos some looks they haven’t seen before, but Denver has obtained such a key piece for its offense by adding Wes Welker that you have to think the tables might just turn around this season and Denver can get that coveted road win in New England.

In the second half of the season, that’s not always been easy (in fact, almost downright impossible) but the Broncos have made the necessary upgrades and can get it done.