ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The season started with an embarrassing loss, punctuated by a defensive lineman scoring a touchdown, and a lot of people wondered if the team could rebound.

The 2003 New England Patriots turned out just fine. Like this year’s Denver Broncos, they were beaten soundly on the road in their season opener – New England lost 31-0 to the Bills that year; Miami beat Denver 34-10 on Sept.11.

“We came out and got our butts whupped,” Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said. “So the thing we had to do was we faced some adversity, now let’s work harder.”

The Patriots lost only one more game that season, which culminated with a 32-29 victory over Carolina in the Super Bowl. The Broncos will have a chance to show how much they might have in common with those Patriots today when they face New England at Invesco Field at Mile High.

The Broncos have won four straight games and are starting to get some national attention. ESPN.com and NFL.com both have Denver second in their NFL power rankings behind Indianapolis. Sports Illustrated’s Web site has Denver ranked fourth; CBS’ Web site has Denver third. If the Broncos beat the Patriots, who have won three of the past four Super Bowls, they can make a legitimate claim as a strong contender in the AFC.

“I think internally we view ourselves, with the talent we have, that we can beat anybody,” Broncos defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. “Fans want to see us be the world champions, so it might validate it for them.”

Even with a win, Denver would have to prove the strong start isn’t another mirage. Denver hasn’t won a division title or playoff game since 1998.

Safety Nick Ferguson said he figured people are expecting a similar slump this year.

“A lot of people are probably doubting the success of our team so far and waiting for us to falter, and this is a great challenge for us,” Ferguson said. “You want to play against the elite and see how you compare.”

The Colts (5-0) might be the best team in the NFL, and they have beaten the Broncos in the playoffs two straight years. But New England has earned too much respect to dismiss it after a 3-2 start.

“They are the Super Bowl champions, and they set the bar,” Broncos fullback Kyle Johnson said. “They are, right now, what the gold standard is in the NFL for football teams. People are looking at them and seeing what they do and trying to emulate them.”

The Broncos might be catching New England at the right time. The Patriots have some significant injuries. Safety Rodney Harrison is done for the season and left tackle Matt Light won’t return for a couple of months, if at all, this year. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi hasn’t played this season after suffering a stroke in February.

Backup running back Kevin Faulk is out with a foot injury and, according to the Patriots, starter Corey Dillon didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday because of a sore ankle, although Dillon probably will play. Defensive end Richard Seymour didn’t play last week because of a knee injury, and the Patriots said he didn’t practice all week.

New England is thin at cornerback as well. Chad Scott went on injured reserve this week with a shoulder injury. Randall Gay (ankle) has missed three straight games, Tyrone Poole (ankle) has missed four games and Duane Starks is playing through a thigh injury.

But the Patriots have played very well through injuries in the past. New England looked bad in a 41-17 loss to San Diego two weeks ago, but rebounded last week to win 31-28 at Atlanta. Last season they had plenty of injuries but won the Super Bowl.

“They’ve proven they can do it with anybody on the field,” Broncos safety Sam Brandon said. “Last year a couple key guys went down and some guys stepped in and they played just as well.”

If the Broncos win today, they won’t apologize for beating the Patriots when they’re banged up.

“I’d be lying to you if I said that it’s just another game,” Ekuban said. “It really isn’t.”

(c) 2005, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).

Visit GT Online, the World Wide Web site of The Gazette, at http://www.gazette.com

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-15-05 1944EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.