The Patriots are at Denver this Sunday for a prime-time game with the Broncos (8:20 p.m., NBC Boston) and they’ll stay in Colorado all week to prepare for a game in Mexico City with the Oakland Raiders the following Sunday.
The trip isn’t necessarily difficult in terms of the caliber of competition, as Denver has lost its last four games to fall to 3-5 and Oakland isn’t much better at 4-5. The Broncos will reportedly be trotting out Brock Osweiler at quarterback this week to halt their free fall. Not exactly John Elway or Peyton Manning clad in orange.
But per New England’s standard of excellence, Denver stands as a house of horrors. Tom Brady is 3-4 in Colorado as a starter in the regular season and has also lost all three of his postseason starts there.
“I think they’ve had good teams,” Brady said of his struggles against the Broncos, the only team he has a losing record against (including postseason) in his career. “Obviously, you play on the road [and] it’s tough communication-wise, but when you play good teams I think the margin of error is even more slim and [Denver] has always had a good football team.”
With an extra week to prepare for the Broncos, Bill Belichick doesn’t appear to be resting his laurels on the Patriots’ 12-5 record off a bye week in his tenure, either.
“We’re obviously pretty deep into Denver here, had a couple of extra days to get started on them, which we’ve needed,” Belichick said Thursday morning. “It’s a really talented team. They have a lot of great players and I think Coach [Vance] Joseph has implemented his style into the team.”
While the overall track record for New England coming off a bye week under Belichick is strong, the team is just 3-3 in its last six such games. This includes a loss off an identical Week 9 bye at home last year vs. the Seattle Seahawks, the first loss at home coming off a bye for the Patriots since 2002.
Not that it mattered in the slightest, as New England still managed to win Super Bowl LI.
Once again, New England’s bye week has perfectly split the regular season into two eight-game halves, rather than a pointless early bye in Week 4 or Week 5.
The rest should certainly do the team some good as it preps to play at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, which as its name suggests, is built exactly one mile above sea level (5,280 feet). It’s the highest elevation of any NFL team’s home stadium.
“It doesn’t really bother me,” running back Dion Lewis said of playing at such a high altitude. “The only thing I notice is that my mouth is a little cottonmouth in the warm-ups, but that’s the only thing that’s really different. I’ve got good lungs, so I’ll be alright.”
Denver will feel like sea level in comparison to the game at Azteca Stadium the following week. Constructed some 7,200 feet above sea level, it’s hosting an NFL game for the third time overall and the second year in a row. The Raiders, who are set to move to Las Vegas in 2020, surrendered a home game last year to play in Mexico and will again serve as the home team next week.
When the Patriots depart for Denver on Friday, they won’t be back in Foxboro until Monday, Nov. 20. The team plans to get acclimated to the altitude of Mexico City by spending a week together at the Air Force Academy just north of Colorado Springs.
New England last had an extended road trip like this in 2014, when it faced the Packers in Green Bay before spending the following week in California to prepare for the San Diego Chargers rather than return to Foxboro in between.
“They’re all different experiences,” Brady said. “I think if you win, they’re a lot of fun. You remember them after the year and you’re like ‘Man, that was great.’ But if you lose they all kind of suck.”
Like Brady, special teams captain Matthew Slater has played in a pair of international games with the Patriots at Wembley Stadium in London (2009 vs. Tampa Bay, 2012 vs. St. Louis) and knows that if the team manages to do the right things, the lengthy trip can be good as far as team building experiences go.
“In the past when we’ve had those types of trips, it’s been great for our team to come together,” Slater said. “[We] spend a lot of time together, just getting to know one another just a little bit better off the football field. I think we’ll have an opportunity to do that this year and hopefully we can get that same kind of thing going. That time’s going to be important for us, it’s a critical stretch in our season. We’re all looking forward to that hopefully bond-forging experience.”
After each of the team’s trips to London, the Patriots had a bye week, as is customary for NFL teams playing in England. But there’ll be no such luck on the back end of the trip south of the border.
New England hosts the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 26 at the end of Thanksgiving weekend before hitting the road for three more games, although all three trips (at Buffalo, at Miami and at Pittsburgh) are in the Eastern Time Zone. Should the Patriots play their cards right, they won’t have to time travel again until Super Bowl LII, which is in Minneapolis. As it stands today, New England is the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture and would host a game in the divisional round.