The Patriots will be looking to give Tom Brady time to throw on Sunday (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots (10-3) travel to Colorado to take on the Denver Broncos (8-5) on Sunday in a game that has plenty of playoff implications for both teams. Without getting into every conceivable scenario, if the Patriots win, they win their division, period. That should be their focus.

Denver has a slim one game lead in the AFC West over the Oakland Raiders and need to win to maintain their lead in the division. Tim Tebow has the entire NFL talking about his fourth quarter comebacks and has filled his team full of confidence.

The Patriots offense has yet to really play 60 minutes although they are rolling along scoring and passing the ball. Had they not left a lot of points on the field in the red zone with some uncharacteristic mistakes, they may have scored close to 50 points last week.

Who comes out on top this week and who wins the key matchups? Let’s break down some of the matchups and see who has the advantages:

Patriots Running Game:
The past two weeks we said the Patriots needed to come out and run the ball effectively to start the game. And they haven’t…Last week; they threw on their first 6 offensive plays before a run was called.

The Broncos have a fast athletic defense; Brodrick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas have done a good job of eating up tackles and allowing the LBs to make plays. The Broncos allow only 4 yards per carry and have allowed only 6 rushing touchdowns all season.

The Patriots will need to mix up the play calling and get BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley going to keep the Broncos defense honest. But during their winning streak, the Broncos run defense has been much better and the yards will come tough.

Patriots Passing Game:
Tom Brady last week passed for 357 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Washington Redskins and it seemed early in the game as if the passing game was sputtering. But once they got the matchups with Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker they wanted, the passing game especially with Gronkowski reaped huge dividends.

This week once again, Matt Light and Nate Solder will have their hands full with excellent edge rushers in Elvis Dummerville and Von Miller. They’ve combined for 19.5 sacks this season and are disruptive in the passing game.

The Broncos like to twist as well and Miller will come up through the middle which the interior of the offensive line will have to be aware of. Denver has given up a lot of yardage but during their recent 7-1 run, they’ve allowed 15 points or less in five of those games so the Broncos have stepped it up defensively.

The matchups in the passing game will be interesting here, Denver has a solid corner in Andre Goodman as well as the ageless Champ Bailey who continues to play at an elite level. With Deion Branch hobbled by a bad groin, and the 3rd WR for the Pats rendered ineffective, they may slide Bailey over to play man on Wes Welker in the slot and double up Gronkowski with linebackers underneath with Brian Dawkins over the top. Dawkins missed the Bears game with an injury and his availability is unknown.

So the Patriots may look to Aaron Hernandez early to loosen things up. One thing the Patriots haven’t been doing much lately is throwing to the running backs. They may look to Woodhead more in this one and Kevin Faulk out in the flat during blitzes.

The key for the Patriots and Tom Brady is to start quickly and put pressure on the Broncos defense. They left a lot of points on the field in D.C. and mustn’t allow the Broncos to be in position to run their normal offense.

Broncos Running Game:
Bill Belichick has said that this week the Patriots have been preparing for an offense with similar characteristics to the Wildcat.  Denver has Willis McGahee and Tim Tebow as the major factors in the running game. Lost in all the hoopla surrounding Tebow is the excellent season McGahee has been having, gaining over 900 yards on the season with a 4.6 YPC average.

Until last week in D.C., the Patriots have been very solid against the run overall. But Mike Shanahan and his zone-blocking scheme shredded the Pats who even reverted to the 3-4 defense at times last week with Andre Carter and Mark Anderson lined up as OLBs.

Denver does do some zone-blocking although I would expect the Patriots to have rectified their issues from Washington. Of course a healthy Brandon Spikes and Pat Chung would go a long way in stopping a Broncos running game that is not the run of the mill type but a different one than the Patriots have seen.

Broncos Passing Game:
A Tale of Two Cities here, in the first three quarters, Denver’s passing game has been basically non-existent with the team going to a heavy run scheme and going to conservative passing plays. But in the fourth quarter, the Broncos have spread out teams with a 3 WR wide attack that has reaped nice results as “Tebow time” has become a national trend.

Tebow has done an excellent job of protecting the football with very few turnovers and when they spread teams out, the continuing conundrum becomes, “will he run or will he throw?”  By spreading out the defense, Denver has allowed Tebow a greater amount of room to run and it also prevents teams from playing man coverage as it allows Tebow a much larger area to run as well.

Denver has some very good targets in Eric Decker, Eddie Royal, Demaryius Thomas as well as Matthew Willis but it truly doesn’t matter. Everyone has been finding huge holes in the Patriots banged up secondary and this game will be no different.

With Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, James Ihedigbo, Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton all hurting, the Patriots have been playing WRs such as Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman as safeties. Slater is limited to playing a deep Cover-2 and can’t cover WRs underneath. As a result, opponents are finding huge holes under the safeties and over the linebackers. Look for Tebow to try to do the same.

The Patriots may opt to ‘spy’ Tebow with Dane Fletcher and try to keep his scrambling down to a minimum. I think the Patriots will go to a progressively lighter package as the game wears on. Heavier DE’s such as Brandon Deaderick and Shaun Ellis will sit as Mark Anderson and Andre Carter will be asked to provide the pressure on Tebow. This week the Patriots may play more of their 4-3 base defense as that will provide a better matchup against what Denver likes to do.

Although John Fox may opt to come out throwing early and take the reins off Tebow since everyone has been able to pass against New England. But expect Tebow to get plenty of passing yardage as the game wears on.

Special Teams:
Denver boasts an outstanding special teams unit, also lost in the Tebow coverage was the outstanding clutch kicking of Matt Prater. Forget the altitude and thin air, when a kicker ties the game with a 59 yard FG and wins the game in OT with a 51 yarder, he’s earned his pay. Britton Colquitt is having an outstanding season as well punting for the Broncos.

The Patriots have two outstanding kickers as well as P Zoltan Mesko is quietly having a Pro-Bowl worthy season. Time and time again, Mesko has turned field position with booming punts. He has also become quite adept at pinning teams deep with punts inside the 20. Stephen Gostkowski has been his normally solid self in the kicking department.

Where Denver has the edge is in the return game, Quan Cosby has a 63 yard KO return and both Decker and Royal have returned punts for touchdowns this season. They are an explosive unit that must be kept under wraps. The Patriots return game has been rather ho-hum all season; the only bright spot was a Julian Edelman return a month ago for a touchdown.

“X”-Factors:
Say what you will, (and many have) about Tebow. But his record at 7-1 as a starting QB is outstanding. And not only does he believe in himself, his team believes in him as well. With the game on the line, they have the confidence that they will win. That cannot be under-estimated; the Bears game last week is the latest example of that.

The Patriots on the other hand have had to scratch and claw for two straight games where they should have been on cruise control. The offense made uncharacteristic mistakes in the red-zone that should have put that one away early.

Brady’s record against Denver can be under-estimated either, against the Broncos he is only 1-6 lifetime, (1-4 in Denver) moreover, the Patriots as a whole have struggled in Denver since the 1960’s, always saving it seems, its worst football for playing there. This will be the classic “hat and t-shirt game” as Tedy Bruschi likes to say. Should the Patriots prevail, they will clinch the AFC East, regardless of what the Jets do.

Conclusions:
This one should be interesting as there are plenty of playoff implications on the line on Sunday. Both teams are ahead in their divisions and will play hard. The biggest thing from a Patriots perspective is to start quickly and put pressure on the Denver offense to score more often. Everyone knows what has transpired in the fourth quarter during the Broncos current 6 game winning streak. For it to end, the Patriots can’t be up 13-10 with six minutes left in the game.

The Patriots have a lot of weapons on offense but this is a tough matchup for them against Denver’s defense. What would help is for the 3rd WR, either Chad Ochocinco, or Tiquan Underwood to step up and make teams pay outside the numbers. But it hasn’t happened so they will sink or swim with who they are.

Tom Brady will have to find the open seams in the middle of the field with Welker and Gronkowski and avoid the rush of Denver’s outside edge rushers. Gronkowski is rapidly becoming one of if not the most feared red zone option in the league. Denver will have to find a way to slow him down or negate him. If their pass rush is getting to Brady, the Patriots will be forced to either make Gronkowski chip on his route or better for them, force the Pats to keep him to block.

Tebow is going to get his yards passing, everyone else has, why should this week be any different? The key here is to keep him in the pocket and force him to throw the ball from the pocket and not allow him to roam freely where he can either run or pass where he’s been extremely effective. The other key for the Patriots defense is stopping Denver’s running game which is currently the NFL’s best averaging over 156 YPG.

Flip-flopped on this one all week, since Buffalo ended their string of frustration against New England earlier this season, maybe it’s time for the Pats to do so in Denver. Although I believe this one can easily go either way, Patriots 31-24

Thursday Night Football

My friend and partner Steve the Cat (STC) and I have been doing a weekly NFL Picks column for a couple of seasons. We will have a complete list later this week, but for now tonight’s game predictions.

Jaguars Vs Falcons:
SB- The Falcons need this game badly and I would expect Michael Turner and Matt Ryan to have big games. Falcons 27-17
STC-
I cannot see Matt Ryan letting the Jaguars slip by him at home and the Jags offense is not match for anyone. Falcons 28-13