DENVER (AP) Tom Brady returns this weekend to Denver, where he was bruised and battered in the AFC championship game last season.
The Denver Broncos hit him nearly two dozen times that frigid January night.
Von Miller parlayed his performance - 2+ sacks, four QB hits and an interception - into one of the greatest showings by a defensive player in Super Bowl history two weeks later, bringing home both the Lombardi and the Super Bowl 50 MVP trophies.
Brady limped out of Denver, his visions of playing well into his 40s nothing more than a pipe dream unless the Patriots could find a way to fix his porous protection.
Brady's jersey is hardly soiled anymore and he has the Patriots (11-2) rolling again.
''He's only been sacked 12 times this year,'' noted Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the architect of that January game. ''He hasn't been hit that much so the protection seems to be a lot better than they were last year.
''But he plays great all the time whether there's protection or not. We hit him a lot of times last year, but if you remember in the two games, he still came back at the end of both games. He's a phenomenal quarterback. There's nobody playing like him.''
A victory Sunday would not only give the Patriots an NFL record eighth consecutive division title, it would deal a severe blow to Denver's designs on defending its Super Bowl title.
Clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot, the Broncos (8-5) will have to get through New England, Kansas City and Oakland, who are a combined 31-8, for that chance.
''Last year, we were one game out of not even making the playoffs and then we go ahead and win the Super Bowl,'' Chris Harris Jr. said.
''We kind of piggybacked on that, but we have to play better now. We have to start getting games rolling now and nothing will feel better than to get back on track by beating the Patriots.''
Miller channeled his inner Aaron Rodgers, imploring restless Broncos fans to relax.
''I mean, I'm still going to be here, right?'' said the star pass rusher whose 13+ sacks are tied for the league lead.
The question is whether he can get to Brady as he did last season when the Patriots spread out their offense and essentially asked Brady to be his own protector and get rid of the ball if an edge rusher came free.
That philosophy worked against most teams, but the Broncos blew it up in the conference championship, hitting him a career-high 23 times, forcing him into 29 incompletions, two fourth-down flops and two interceptions, including one with 12 seconds left on a 2-point try that would have tied the game.
The performance cost former offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo his job in the offseason.
It also led Bill Belichick to entice veteran former Patriots assistant Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement to reassume the role.
Add in LeGarrette Blount's huge season and some personnel changes up front and the Patriots have done a much better job protecting their 39-year-old QB who's been sacked just twice in the past month.
They'll find out just how much progress they've made when they face the NFL's top-ranked pass defense and its best pass rusher in Miller on Sunday.
Here are other things to watch:
SIEMIAN'S GROWTH: Greg Knapp, Trevor Siemian's position coach, said he agrees with Kubiak's tough-love approach to the young QB by demanding more of him.
Siemian is ''showing us he's got a great knack to handle a lot of pressure,'' Knapp said. ''When a guy's like that, you want to keep pushing him.''
Demaryius Thomas said Siemian ''can be great. He gets better and better every week. He hasn't been the healthiest guy this season, but he's been able to put out good footballs when he's hurt. I imagine when he has the time, guys get open, he can take us the distance.''
MILE HIGH STRUGGLES: The Broncos are the only team with a winning record against Brady (9-6), and they've won seven of nine against him in Denver.
By bucking that trend, Brady would set yet another NFL record. His 52 career victories in December are tied with Hall of Famer Brett Favre for most wins by a starting quarterback in any month.
WHAT ABOUT BLOUNT?: As impressive as Brady has been throwing the ball, much of the credit for New England's offensive success goes to Blount, who has a career-high 1,029 yards and an NFL-best 14 TDs.
''Because they play the pass so well, I think we've got to find ways to make yards in the run game,'' Brady said. ''We've done a pretty good job of that this year.''
SOFT UNDERBELLY? The Broncos' bugaboo this season is their run defense. After leading the league last year, they've nosedived to 29th against the run, which thwarts their advantage of having the league's top secondary and best pass rush.
Linebacker Brandon Marshall (hamstring) was replaced by Corey Nelson last week at Tennessee and when Todd Davis (ribs) went out, fellow backup Zaire Anderson came in and had five tackles.
''He got thrown in there last week and we played our best half,'' Kubiak said.
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