Tom Brady and Tim Tebow share an embrace after a Dec.18 game

The New England Patriots (13-3) enter the Divisional Playoff Round at home as the #1 seed and will face the Denver Broncos (9-8) who shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers in Denver last weekend.

Of course everyone is talking about Tim Tebow and why not? When you average 31.6 yards per completion against the #1 defense against the pass, you’ve done your job as a QB. The maddening thing though about Tebow, is rather than focus on what he can do; the critics are constantly focusing on what he can’t do. That and his religion, what is so bad for the guy to be upfront with his beliefs, is it a bad thing? Really, the press fawns all over guys that are far worse guys than Tim Tebow, including his opposite number last week. Stick to football.

The Patriots will be looking to break a streak of three consecutive playoff losses and also get out of the gate better. The last few weeks of the regular season, they’ve been horrible in the first quarter, falling behind by large amounts to Buffalo, Miami and Denver before rallying. Tom Brady had a fantastic season passing for over 5200 yards and 39 touchdowns. He lost his only playoff appearance against Denver in 2005.

So it’s on to the matchups:

Patriots Running Game:

In the first meeting in Denver, the Broncos did a great job of bottling up BenJarvus Green-Ellis who gained only 17 yards on 10 carries. But the running game got a spark with Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley who with a bit more speed were able to give the Patriots some good yardage on the ground as the team finished with 141 yards for the game.

Denver is a fast athletic defense and they flow to the ball very well. But they’re not overly big, so the key is to run right at them quickly, the slow developing plays to the outside will not be successful against the Broncos. Last week, they stopped Pittsburgh’s running game early but seemed to wear down in the second half.

The Patriots will again attempt to run enough to keep Denver’s pass rushers from just being able to pin their ears back. Expect the Patriots to try some of those quick traps and draws and try to catch Denver selling out on the pass rush. But I don’t expect the Patriots rushing game to have a huge day.

Patriots Passing Game:

The Patriots passing game is one of the best in the league, arguably right up there with the likes of New Orleans and Green Bay so stopping it for Denver will be no easy task. As we stated earlier Tom Brady had a fantastic season passing for over 5000 yards, and the Patriots like to spread the wealth around to a number of targets.

Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski are Brady’s favorite go-to receivers but if teams over compensate he can easily find Deion Branch or Aaron Hernandez, who had a huge game in Denver a few weeks ago. This season, the Patriots have not thrown to their backs as much as in years past, but we think that may change in this game.

Denver’s strength is their corners with Andre’ Goodman and the ageless Champ Bailey who can still run with the best of them. Although the Broncos may try to slide Bailey over onto Gronkowski and take him away and put a linebacker on Hernandez with over the top help. They provide a formidable duo on the outside. Likewise, their pass rush with the outstanding edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller will provide the Patriots OL another stern test.

One thing to watch for this time around is the Broncos stunting or looping their edge rushers to the inside to try to get pressure on Brady up the middle. This was something they have done in the past but didn’t in the game in Denver, where they were handled pretty well. The common theme in all three Patriots losses in the playoffs was the pressure brought up the middle on Brady. The Patriots OL will be under the microscope in this one.

But the Denver defense’s weak spot is in the middle of the field, with Brian Dawkins out with a neck injury, it softens up their center, taking away their intimidator back there. Brady targeted the safeties in the first matchup and passed for 320 yards. He gave them different looks and when they bought on fakes underneath, he hit Chad Ochocinco for a 33 yard touchdown. Bottom line, like every other week is if the Patriots give Brady time to throw, the Patriots will be successful through the air. I think the Broncos may blitz some early in the game to try to throw off the timing of the passing game, that’s why I see the New England running backs being more active in the passing game at least initially.

Broncos Running Game:

The first game was a tale of two quarters, the first quarter the Patriots were completely overwhelmed with the Broncos zone blocking schemes and were gashed for 160+ yards in the first quarter. But once they scrapped their game plan, they played better for the final three stanzas slowing down the rushing game.

Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee had great success running the ball the first time around until McGahee went down with an injury. But one thing is certain, the Patriots run defense suffered down the stretch and the Broncos zone blocking and run/pass option will present another stiff challenge.

Two players who missed the last game who may provide a much needed boost for New England are MLB Brandon Spikes and S Pat Chung. Chung will provide good run support and should be quick enough on his reads not to get burned by the option route. Spikes, on the other hand is becoming an enigma here in New England.

When healthy, Spikes has showed that he can be the physical, intimidating force in the middle. And make no mistake, the Patriots need that. That is the reason their run defense has suffered the past month. But as good as Spikes has been in short windows, he’s been the recipient lately of rumors that he’s not working as hard on his knee rehab as he should, and that he has neglected his conditioning while hurt. We’ve also heard rumors about him not putting in the time in the film room. The telling point will be how much he plays on Saturday against a run heavy team like the Broncos.

When Spikes is on his game, he’s a big difference maker in the running game. The Patriots like to use him as a Mike blitzer, attacking the running game and use his natural instinctiveness to blow up running plays in the backfield.

But I expect the Broncos to get their yards on the ground, I think Bill Belichick’s focus this week will be to take them out of their ground game and make them one-dimensional with the pass. But I don’t think they will be entirely successful with that.

Broncos Passing Game:

All the hoopla about Tim Tebow can be summed up by looking at what people wrote after the Steelers game. His detractors point to him only completing 10 passes and less than a 50% completion rate. His spear carriers will say that he averaged 31.6 yards per completion and his passer rating was a fantastic 125.6.

His big target Demaryius Thomas had 4 catches for 204 yards (51 Yards per catch) as the Steelers acted like they read all the negative Tebow hype and brought their safeties up in the box basically daring the Broncos to throw. It was far from a smart game plan and it cost them. On Monday evening the writers from PatsFans were invited to the ComCast Sports New England Football Night in New England. I had the pleasure to sit with Fred Smerlas and we spoke about the game between Denver and Pittsburgh and the prevailing word about the Steelers game plan that kept coming up was arrogance.

The Steelers didn’t think that Tebow could throw on their corners and they left them out there with no help. Don’t expect the Patriots to employ anything even similar, I think the Patriots will play zone with over the top help and try to force Tebow into making those medium range throws, where he’s had accuracy issues. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Devin McCourty play safety again and with a healthy Pat Chung back in the secondary things should be much improved on the Patriots back end.

In the first game, Denver had good success on play-action passes to Thomas on a post pattern, and both they and the Patriots will be looking at film of that. Chung like Polamalu last week, is prone to be over-aggressive at times, so he’ll have to be aware of play-action and when to attack.

I think the Patriots will approach the option much like they did the first time and have the first player go after Tebow all the way and try to hit him or force him to get rid of the ball quickly. The goal will be to play the bend but don’t break defense and force them to try to pick their way down the field.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

The Patriots have yet to find an answer in their kick return team, where Danny Woodhead hasn’t been effective this year, but Julian Edelman and Wes Welker have given the Patriots some decent return yardage on punts.

Denver counters with Matthew Willis on kick returns and the very good Eddie Royal on punts. After having a less than average middle of the season, the Patriots coverage teams have been extremely solid down the stretch. That must continue not only this week but the remainder of the playoffs should the Patriots win against Denver. They can’t allow the opposition to have a short field and get easy scores.

Both teams have outstanding kicking games with the Broncos riding the strong legs of K Matt Prater and P Brandon Colquitt. The Patriots have had an outstanding season from P Zoltan Mesko who has pinned opponents inside their 20 yard line all season and a solid season from K Stephen Gostkowski. Call this one a wash at sea level.

“X”Factors:
Denver enters the game loose and will be playing with house money this week. No one expected them to beat Pittsburgh so they have little to lose in this one. Expect a full array of trick plays, on-side kicks and the whole nine yards as they attempt to get to the AFC Championship Game.

The Patriots enter the game as the #1 seed in the AFC for the second year in a row. But one thing that stands out is how tight Bill Belichick’s teams have come out of the gate during the playoffs. Not coincidentally the Patriots have dropped 3 straight playoff games, the last two at home. Regular season success is great, but this team needs to take the next step.

The Patriots will have to buck their recent trend of starting slowly, and their trend of coming off of a bye week in the playoffs and playing poorly. They need to start fast and put the Broncos in the rear mirror. Denver is a team that if the game is close heading into the fourth quarter, they believe they will come out on top.

Conclusions:

No more dress rehearsals, the big time starts on Saturday night. This is what the teams work hard for all year is to have a shot at the big prize and for the Patriots; they worked to get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

This one should be closer than the first meeting in Denver where everything seemed to cave in on the Broncos in the second quarter with the turnovers and the Patriots walking away with a big victory.

The Denver running game, dormant last week will be looking to step up and open up holes for the passing game. If that happens, it will open up the middle of the field and the long ball down that Denver hit upon against Pittsburgh. But the Patriots the last time after a disastrous first quarter figured it out and did a much better job of defending Denver’s spread option the final three quarters. Tebow will do some damage and get their yards, but not like last week. The Patriots will make them earn every score by going on long drives and try to force turnovers.

On offense New England will look to do the same thing it did the last time, attack the middle of the field against Denver’s safeties. Rob Gronkowski wasn’t a big factor in the last game, staying to block more than normally, but Aaron Hernandez had a huge game. Expect Tom Brady to mix it up with those two and Wes Welker in the slot. If the Broncos defense starts to try to clog the middle, then the Patriots will some room to open up the outside.

I think Brady has a solid game, and they keep the tandem of Dumervil and Miller at bay for the most part. Look for Brady to wear down the Denver defense in the second half as the Patriots get the playoff monkey off their back and advance. Patriots 34-24

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