Patriots prepare for biggest test against Broncos
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) A smiling Jonas Gray stood at the more prominent locker he got after being promoted from the Patriots practice squad.
He showed he belongs by rushing for 86 yards in his second NFL game, a 51-23 rout of the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
A much tougher test looms - the Denver Broncos.
''You realize it's not just another game,'' Gray, who spent the first six games on the practice squad, said Monday. ''You know that you're playing against a really good team, so you've got to be on point on everything you do, no mistakes.''
Peyton Manning will lead Denver (6-1) into Foxborough on Sunday against New England (6-2). It's a rematch of last year's AFC championship game, won by the Broncos 26-16 in Denver, and a possible preview of this year's.
So the Patriots moved quickly on from their romp over the struggling Bears.
''When it ended it was a victory that was short lived,'' tight end Tim Wright said. ''We knew we had to focus all our attention on the Broncos.''
Tom Brady completed 30 of 35 passes for 354 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in the Patriots fourth straight win. He wasn't sacked, thanks, in part, to decent blocking by Gray.
That job becomes a lot tougher against the Broncos pass rush. Speedy Von Miller leads them with nine sacks and DeMarcus Ware has seven.
''They do a good job of disguising their blitzes and hitting those gaps hard,'' Gray said. ''So you've just got to go in there and anchor down and be ready for some bull rushes.''
He got plenty of work on that when he spent all last season on Baltimore's practice squad. He was on the scout team that played against the starting defense and picked up tips from fullback Vonta Leach.
''When I first realized I could be a pretty good blocker was last year when I used to see Vonta Leach do it all the time,'' Gray said, ''and the (defensive) guys never gave me a day off. They always came hard every day.''
Undrafted out of Notre Dame, Gray spent the 2012 season on the Miami Dolphins physically unable to perform list.
The Patriots promoted him from the practice squad after starting running back Stevan Ridley suffered a season-ending injury to his right knee in the sixth game, a 37-22 win over the Buffalo Bills.
''He's a guy who worked very hard behind the scenes and when he got his number called he went out there and did his job,'' Wright said.
But that was against the Bears, who lost for the fourth time in five games.
The Patriots face a much tougher schedule in the second half of the season. The eight teams they've played have a combined record of 24-35-1. The eight teams left are 37-25.
They have a bye after facing Denver then visit Indianapolis and play at home against Detroit before going on the road against Green Bay and San Diego.
''I don't think we're playing our best football at all,'' Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. ''We have to play our best football at the end of the season. You can never be happy (with) where you're at.''
New England faced Denver in each of the past three regular seasons and won all three games. But the Broncos added key defenders Ware at end and former Patriot Aqib Talib at cornerback and the results have been dramatic.
The Broncos have allowed the fewest yards rushing per game, 72.4, and the fourth fewest total yards per game, 315.3. And they have 23 sacks in seven games.
Gray and his teammates had better be ready.
''They always talk about who's the better team in the AFC,'' Gray said. ''Whenever you go against an opponent like that, you want to be able to be at your best. The stuff you got away with before, you won't be able to get away with that now.''
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