As you may have seen about a million times on SportsCenter, the Patriots are taking on the growing legend that is Tim Tebow this weekend in Denver. New England's five-game winning streak has them on the verge of clinching the AFC East with either a win or a Jets loss (or the unlikely scenario that both teams tie!). The Broncos six-game winning streak under Tebow's direction has them in the playoff hunt in the AFC West. It's a unique matchup of two teams that have been winning consistently of late despite some obvious flaws. As we get ready to witness either another unlikely chapter in Tebow's mystical march through the NFL or a big dose of reality for the second-year starter, break open this original Rocky Mountain-brewed Broncos edition of the Friday Six-Pack!
1. Weak vs. Weak - The Patriots biggest weakness is obviously on pass defense, where New England ranks 32nd in the league. The Broncos biggest weakness is on pass offense, where Denver ranks 31st in the league. Tebow completes just 48 percent of his passes overall, and generally much fewer than that in the first three quarters. The Patriots defense has held an opposing QB to less than 250 yards just once in 13 games. Tebow has yet to throw for 250 yards this season, topping the 200-yard mark through the air just twice. Only one Patriots opponent has thrown less than 30 passes in 13 games. Tebow has topped 30 attempts in only two games. Something may have to give here. Either a Patriots defense that can't stop anyone will stop a guy who can't throw. Or, a guy who can't throw will put up his biggest numbers against a defense that can't stop anyone. Tune in Sunday evening!
3. Finish - The Tebow-led Broncos have won two of their last three games in overtime. They've won five straight games by less than a score; five wins by a total of 23 points. They keep the game close and pull it out in the end. That's just what they seem to do. On the other side the Patriots have held on for victory against two bad football teams over the last two weeks - needing an onside kick recovery against the Colts and an offensive pass interference call/interception against the Redskins. If the Patriots can't close the door on Denver, the Broncos could make them pay. That means a need to not only start fast and take Denver out of its close-game comfort zone, but also a need to play a full 60 minutes and close the door on any possible comeback. That's the offense scoring points, getting a lead and then maybe, just maybe, running the ball to close the door. That's the defense stopping Tebow and Co., not allowing a jump in production in the fourth quarter. Stop the pass and the run. The Broncos have closed games in impressive, almost inexplicable fashion of late. The Patriots have struggled to close games out. Again, something has to give.
4. Execute like a high school team - More is made of the Broncos option attack than probably should be. It's not like they run the old triple option, or even a ton of option at all. It's a part of their offense. There is no question. And when it comes up, the Patriots must play solid, disciplined, assignment-based run defense up front. Having Dane Fletcher playing again should help. Getting Brandon Spikes - who's questionable with a knee injury - back would help. But the biggest thing is sound run fits, doing their job up front and solid tackling, especially on the edges. It's not just Tebow who must be stopped on the ground. Sure he averages 5.5 yards a carry with six games with more than 49 yards rushing. But Willis McGahee is also a concern. The former Bill and Raven is averaging 4.6 yards a carry with six 100-yard games on the season. He's topped the century mark in two of the last three, although he was held in check last week by the Bears. Some Patriots players talked this week about not having worked against an option look since high school, or at the very least since college. But the team's success stopping Miami's Wildcat looks over the years after the initial game of shock should help in the process. Either way, the Patriots can't allow the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack to find consistent success or it could be a long day.
5. Tebow! - That's what the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated says. It's been the story of the week, if not the entire season for the NFL. It's what Patriots players faced all week in the media and will face on the field Sunday in Denver. But what exactly is Tebow at this point? The leader of a groundswell of positive thinking? A fullback/H-back playing quarterback? The guy who seemingly can't throw or move his team for three quarters? The guy who gets hot and just wins games in the fourth quarter/overtime? There are so many questions and only the Patriots defense can provide some of the answers. Everyone expects the Broncos to come in running their option, ground-based offense. Maybe they will. But is there any chance that seeing what every other quarterback has done against the Patriots that maybe, just maybe, Denver comes out and lets Tebow throw the ball more early in the game than he normally does? If so, will even he as a 48-percent passer find success against the Patriots porous secondary? I think there is a good possibility that Denver will indeed let Tebow try to sling it around early. Given what I've seen so far from the New England secondary, there is a good chance that even Tebow will complete passes against the struggling unit. But can he shock the Patriots to the point of keeping pace with Brady? Doubtful. Very doubtful.
6. Stay on/Get off - So many NFL games come down to the league's money down, third down. The Broncos are not very good on third down on offense under Mr. Three-And-Out Tim Tebow. Denver converts at just a 31.8-percent clip (28th in the league). The good news is that the Broncos defense allows teams to convert at just 34.1 percent (8th). The Patriots are fifth in third down offense but 30th on third down defense. But even the Patriots impressive offense has been streaky in terms of staying on the field and putting drives together in recent weeks. It's important that when Tebow goes into one of his three- or four-series stretches of three-and-out that Brady turns those into scoring drives for the Patriots. That will totally blow up what has been Denver's formula for success of late.
In the end the NFL is all about matchups. This week it comes down to which team's weakness is weaker, and which team's strength is stronger. I think the Patriots come out in both those comparisons. I think the Patriots offense is more talented, productive and proven than Denver's defense. On the other side, I think the Patriots defense is capable of hanging with the Broncos limited offensive attack. Tebow is a great story and his winning has been fun for Denver. But a lot of guys "just win" for short stretches against questionable competition. They generally get exposed against better teams. Tebow and the Broncos will be exposed this week. Though I think Denver will try to throw more than expected, expect the Broncos to still struggle to put drives together. When they punt, expect Brady to turn it into points. Tebow will go three-and-out. Brady will go to the end zone. The score will increase in the Patriots favor and Tebowmania will be orange crushed. Look for the Patriots to pull out to the early lead and control the game on the way to the 35-9 victory. Rocky Mountain High!