New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (37) intercepts a pass intended for Indianapolis Colts wide receiver LaVon Brazill (15) during the first half of an AFC divisional NFL playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Denver Broncos tried to beat the New England Patriots less than two months ago by running the ball. It didn’t work.
With a Super Bowl berth at stake in Sunday’s rematch, Peyton Manning figures to have a better day.
“We’ll have to be on top of our game,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said.
Their pass defense has been pretty close to that lately.
The Patriots intercepted Andrew Luck four times Saturday night in their 43-22 divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts. And in their next to last regular-season game, they picked off Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco three times in a 41-7 rout at Baltimore.
They’re traveling again this week, to Denver for the AFC championship game, with a deep, experienced secondary. And though Flacco and Luck are impressive quarterbacks, Manning appears to be on a different level — regardless of how he did last time out vs. New England.
“What you are always trying to strive for is consistency,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Tuesday, “certainly in a position like the defensive backs where there is a lot of communication.”
In their first meeting with the Broncos, the Patriots won 34-31 in overtime after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Manning had season lows of 19 completions, 150 yards passing, a 52.8 completion percentage and a 70.2 passer rating. With the wind whipping, and the running game rolling behind Knowshon Moreno’s 224 yards, Manning threw 36 passes, five below his average. His longest completion gained 17 yards, although tight end Julius Thomas sat out with a knee injury.
New England struggled against the long ball early last season. That changed after it acquired cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade with Tampa Bay after the eighth game. He sat out the next game to complete a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He said it was Adderall.
In his first game with the Patriots, he returned an interception for a touchdown against Luck.
Talib’s arrival solidified the move of Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety, made after the sixth game. With Gregory at safety and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback, the Patriots had the starting secondary they continued using this season.
“It’s been a huge plus for us that we’ve been able to essentially keep those same players back there,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Then (there’s) some degree of flexibility because both Steve Gregory and Devin have both played corner.”
Injuries on defense sidelined tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo for most of the season and linebacker Brandon Spikes for the postseason. But in the secondary, the four starters have missed a total of just nine games.
When they’ve been out, veteran Kyle Arrington and two rookies, cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, have played more.
Ryan’s interception against Manning early in the fourth quarter Nov. 24 led to the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for the first time, 28-24.
“I practice against a great quarterback every day,” Ryan said before his playoff debut against Luck. “So I think practicing against Tom (Brady) makes everything a little bit easier.”
Ryan led the Patriots with five interceptions. Talib had four. Dennard had just one then picked off two in the playoff win over the Colts. He did give up a 38-yard touchdown reception to LaVon Brazill on a perfectly thrown pass on which he barely missed the deflection.
“He’s got attitude,” Gregory said. “He believes in his talent. We believe in him. We’re always out there supporting each other, letting the guys know that, `Hey, we got this, you can do this.’ Those corners, they have to play with confidence. You see it in Talib, you see it in `Zo, Logan, Kyle. You need that in order to cover guys in the NFL.”
Especially when those guys are Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. They combined for 252 catches for 3,496 yards and 35 touchdowns for Denver.
But the Patriots still have Talib, Dennard, Gregory and McCourty trying to contain them.
“They have a good comfort level out on the football field,” Patricia said. “So as much as you can have the continuity within a group — especially in the back end — I think it is always what is going to help you in the long run.”
NOTES: Belichick had no update on punter Ryan Allen, who left last Saturday’s game after hurting his shoulder when he was hit after recovering a bad snap. “We’ll put out our injury report (Wednesday) after practice like we usually do,” Belichick said. He said the Patriots could sign a punter as late as Friday or let placekicker Stephen Gostkowski fill in as he did when Allen was injured. ... Offensive coordinator and former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, asked about having withdrawn his name for consideration for Cleveland’s head coaching job, said, “I’m really happy here. I’ve said that numerous times.”
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