When the Patriots and Broncos met on Dec. 18th the game was such an intriguing one that there was a battle between TV networks hoping to broadcast it. There is even more hype, excitement and fanaticism surrounding this divisional playoff game rematch a month later. The Broncos put forth a very entertaining win last weekend against Pittsburgh to earn the right to face the AFC's No. 1 seed in Foxborough. But can Tim Tebow keep his magic rolling and build on his already inexplicable legend? Or will Tom Brady prove what a real championship-caliber quarterback looks like? Either way, history will be made on a variety of levels Saturday night inside Gillette Stadium. Until the prime time kickoff, enjoy this postseason, sea-level, Broncos edition of the Friday Six-Pack!
1. Brady - Despite the ridiculous ESPN-driven Tebow hype, Brady is the most important player in Saturday night's game. The Patriots are built in a way that the team doesn't have much of a chance of winning if Brady isn't on his game. He's either going get the recent postseason monkey off his back to earn his 15th career playoff win or become just the fifth quarterback to lose four-straight postseason games and the first to do so without playing a road game. Reports indicated he's been on edge all week. We know he's the most competitive man on the team. Maybe that competitiveness gets him too hyped for the postseason? Regardless, he needs to find somebody to head butt before the game and come out making plays. He threw a costly interception in last January's loss to the Jets. He fumbled and threw three interceptions in the prior loss to the Ravens in 2009 and never looked comfortable back in Super Bowl XLII. Brady is the Patriots leader, playmaker and driving force. As he goes, so goes New England's chances of winning. One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game needs to live up to his overall career performances and not his recent postseason resume.
2. Early momentum - In its last two regular season games of 2011 New England dug a three-score deficit before coming back to win. A year ago the Patriots trailed the Jets by two scores early in the second quarter. The postseason before that, Baltimore took a 24-point first quarter lead. Getting in a hole and coming back against the Dolphins and Bills is one thing. Doing it in the postseason, against playoff competition, is another. The Patriots have learned that lesson the hard way. It's important for New England to get some early momentum in this one. That could be a drive to a touchdown. That could be forcing Denver into one of its not-so-rare three-and-outs. It could be a big hit. A turnover. Whatever it is, the Patriots need to come out of the gates rolling. Get the home crowd into it. Make the Broncos play from behind, something they're not built to do. Allow your defense to play from ahead, making its life that much easier against a somewhat one-dimensional team. Bill Belichick has been trying to get his team to, "Start fast and finish strong." They've proven the ability to do the latter. There's no better time to prove the first part than this Saturday night against the Broncos to take the faith-based hope away from the upstart visitors.
3. Front the run - The Patriots had a major problem stopping the run against Denver the first time. They allowed 167 yards in the first quarter on the way to 252 yards for the day. New England made "adjustments" but it also didn't hurt that Willis McGahee got hurt. The former Bill and Raven is looking to finish his business this time. The Steelers lost last week because they respected Denver's No. 1 ranked rushing attack too much and had no respect for Tebow's ability to beat them over the top. They filled the box and let Demaryius Thomas get behind them for a huge day. That happens when a team doesn't think its front can stop the run without help. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo need to lead a front seven that proves it can keep the Broncos ball carriers in check. You're not going to completely shut down Denver's rushing, but you can't let it run wild like a stallion, either. Brandon Spikes' return should help. After missing seven games, including at Denver, he got some reps in the finale. Not only is he a guy that can help out against the run on any given day, he also knows a lot of about Tebow's offensive style and running ability from their days together at Florida. Another early problem in the first meeting was Rob Ninkovich lined up at end in a 4-man front and getting absolutely killed. That can't happen again. If the Patriots have to bring the safeties up to stop the run they set themselves up to get beat deep just like the Steelers. And we know the Patriots have struggled to stop big pass plays all year. Heck, Tebow and Thomas hit them for seven receptions for 116 yards the first time, including a 39 yarder. New England allowed a pass play of 30 yards or longer in 12 of 16 regular season games, 40 or longer in six games, including four of the last six games of the year. In a strange way, stopping those big pass plays in this one could be about the run defense up front getting its job done.
4. Health - The Patriots hit the postseason, thanks in part to the bye week, as healthy as the team has been all year. That may have taken a slight hit when Patrick Chung landed on the injury report yet again after the Patriots Friday walk-through. But it would seem that Matt Light and Logan Mankins will be back on the offensive line, although Mankins may still be limited some with his knee injury. Spikes and Chung should be available on defense. McCourty has gotten better with his shoulder to the point where he was removed from the injury report all together. By comparison the Steelers ran into the Broncos held together by medical tape and got more banged up as the game went on. Injuries are always a big issue in the postseason, and as of right now the Patriots look really good in that area. Denver, on the other hand, lost a key receiver in Eric Decker, long snapper Lonie Paxton (not an injury) and Brian Dawkins in the defensive backfield.
6. Matchups - Depth and team schemes are all fine and dandy. But many times postseason games come down to one-on-one matchups. Stars and goats can be made in any given postseason contest. The latest example is Thomas making a name for himself with 200 yards at the expense of Steelers corner Ike Taylor. New England's line got its hat handed to it by the Giants a couple years back. The first time around in this meeting it looked like McGahee would be the star of the day, but then Aaron Hernandez became the offensive standout for the Patriots instead. Every play, every snap can have the game on the line, a guy's reputation on the line. Legends will be born, extended or crushed Saturday night. Teams win games in the postseason, but individuals shine. Who will shine brightest in this one? Will it be Brady, Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski or some other Patriots star? Will it be an unexpected New Englander? Could it be the myth of Tebow? The veteran McGahee? The new star in Thomas? Only time will tell.
The Broncos gave the Patriots scare in the first meeting before fumbling the game away. Denver then gave Pittsburgh more than a scare last week, sending Big Ben and company home for the offseason. But in some ways that was the Broncos Super Bowl. It was an exciting, unexpected upset. Can they rebound from that experience on a short week and long flight east to be ready to take on the Patriots in prime time at Gillette Stadium? I doubt it. Belichick and Brady have a lot invested in this game, this season, this team. They had the extra week. Beyond all that, I think a quarterback has to complete more than 50 percent of his passes to beat the Patriots. Tebow needs to prove he can do that. Until he does, I'll pick against him. I expect Brady to come out and put on a show. If Champ Bailey matches up with Hernandez, then I think Brady will make plays elsewhere with Wes Welker and Gronkowski. I think the defense for the Patriots is starting to feel like it can make plays and force turnovers. Not a great unit, but maybe one with a building confidence and playmaking style. Maybe. Regardless, Brady will put up a pretty big number on the scoreboard to lead New England to the AFC title game for the first time since 2007 and end the Patriots three-game losing streak. Patriots score early and roll to the 35-13 victory in a game that won't nearly live up to the unrealistic hype.