FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Champ Bailey’s admiration for Tom Brady remains sky high. The Denver cornerback’s 100-yard interception return against the two-time Super Bowl MVP didn’t even shake that opinion.

“I rank him No. 1” among all NFL quarterbacks, Bailey said.

When star went against star in last season’s playoffs – Bailey has been chosen for six Pro Bowls – the Bronco prevailed. Trailing 10-6 in the third quarter with the ball at the Denver 5-yard line, Brady threw a pass that was picked off 1 yard behind the goal line.

Last Monday, in preparation for tonight’s rematch between the familiar foes, New England coach Bill Belichick showed his players film of the game in which Bailey raced up the left sideline to set up Mike Anderson’s 1-yard touchdown run and a 17-6 advantage.

That could have been painful reviewing for a Patriots team whose hopes for a record third straight Super Bowl championship were shattered amid its five turnovers in that 27-13 loss in Denver.

“I wouldn’t say painful,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “I’m over it, and I’ve moved on from there, and right now it’s just watch film and if a few plays are sprinkled in there from last year, it’s just what can you learn from it.”

One lesson might be for Brady, who is 1-4 the last five seasons against Denver, to hand off the ball more. He’s better equipped to do that this season with first-round draft pick Laurence Maroney sharing time with Corey Dillon.

Denver also has a rotating pair in Tatum Bell and rookie Mike Bell.

With both teams struggling with their passing attacks, the emphasis could be on the running game. Brady is getting used to new receivers after David Givens went to Tennessee as a free agent and Deion Branch was traded to Seattle. Denver’s Jake Plummer lost Ashley Lelie as a target, but gained Javon Walker.

Maroney has rushed 33 times for 151 yards and one touchdown, while Dillon, healthy after being sidelined part of last season, has 36 carries for 153 yards and one touchdown. The Patriots are 2-0 despite Brady’s mediocre play.

“They’re running the football, which opens up the play-action pass and those type of things,” Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. “And they always play great defense. If you can run the ball and play great defense, especially with a quarterback like Tom Brady, usually, good things are going to happen.”

Throw in Kevin Faulk, an outstanding receiver, and the Patriots have one off the deepest running back groups in their history and rank second in the NFL in yards rushing.

That kind of production is nothing new to Denver, which ranks third and traditionally has powerful running games no matter who is carrying the ball.

Their leading rushers were Anderson in 2005, Reuben Droughns in 2004 and Clinton Portis in 2003. All are gone, replaced by Tatum Bell, with 172 yards rushing, and Mike Bell, with 102.

Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel isn’t surprised at the success of so many different runners.

“It’s just not like it’s any guy,” he said. “It’s not like it’s me. They’ve got good running backs.”

But the Broncos (1-1) have struggled to score. Their only touchdown came in an 18-10 loss at St. Louis before Jason Elam scored all their points in a 9-6 win over Kansas City in overtime.

“We had bad turnovers in the first game. In the second game it was third downs” that caused offensive problems, Shanahan said. “We’ve got the majority of the same guys back, so we need to just click and eliminate some of the mistakes.”

There haven’t been many costly mistakes on defense this season. Opponents haven’t scored a touchdown.

“They’re really good,” Patriots center Dan Koppen said. “They know how to run their defense and put guys in the right spots. They don’t have guys out there freelancing. They stay to their jobs and their responsibilities.”

The Broncos recovered two fumbles against the Chiefs, one leading to a field goal, but did allow Larry Johnson to rush for 125 yards.

The best way to succeed against a fast defense like Denver’s is to “get on them and not let them run, not play a space game with them, and try to get somebody on them so that they’re not running free,” Belichick said.

The Patriots’ defense struggled in the second half of last Sunday’s 24-17 win over the New York Jets. They squandered a 24-0 lead and allowed touchdowns on pass plays covering 71 and 46 yards on which they missed tackles.

Denver is a tougher opponent.

“We’ll definitely be ready,” Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said. “It’s the team that knocked us out so we don’t need any pep rallies for this game.”

Especially because the Broncos have such an excellent recent history against them.

“The history is pretty bad,” Belichick conceded.

But the Patriots still have Brady.

“I know one thing. He is a winner,” Bailey said. “You can’t really underestimate this guy, regardless of what he has done against us.”

AP-ES-09-23-06 1538EDT


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