Jerome Solomon and Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe write that one thing is certain: should tomorrow night's game come down to a field goal, the Patriots are in good shape with Adam Vinatieri, a.k.a. Mr. Clutch. But the advantage New England typically has in that department isn't so profound this week, as Denver features one of the league's best in Jason Elam. Elam is the first player in history to top the 100-point mark in each of his first 13 seasons. He and Vinatieri are the only ones to do it 10 times to begin a career. Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald and Tom Curran of the Providence Journal also offer similar articles.
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald writes that as story lines go, the Patriots couldn't have drawn up a better plot against Denver in tomorrow's divisional playoff matchup. They are the underdog, a role that they relish. And, they really aren't being overly pressured on any front to beat the Broncos and advance to the AFC Championship Game. If you think about it, all the pressure to win the game is on Mike Shanahan and his crew, a team that hasn't won a playoff game since John Elway left the building. For the Patriots, it can't get much better than that. "I love being the underdog. It's like being (Doug) Flutie," punter Josh Miller cracked, referring to his teammate. "Really, it's a good place to be. You have more to prove, and it raises your game. We're going into their back yard, it's going to be a big fight, on their turf. If this was 'West Side Story,' we'd be fighting in their neighborhood. So, we are the underdog."
Stephen Smith of the Boston Globe takes a look at how the thin air in Denver effects player performance.
Ron Borges of the Boston Globe writes that the Patriots vs. Broncos game is the best matchup of the weekend and perhaps the only competitive game this round because it pits the power running and powerful defense of the upstart Broncos against the pride and intelligent aggression of the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. New England may no longer be the best team in the league but they are not willing to go quietly into the night, a point the Broncos will figure out early Saturday night when the going becomes a lot tougher than it was three months ago.
Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe offers a story on Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. MacMullan writes that Vrabel has proven to be a big-play defender, and an opportunistic goal-line receiver (8 career receptions, 8 touchdowns). Yet it was only six years ago that Vrabel was a largely unnoticed Steelers free agent defender with a thin NFL résumé and only a couple of viable options. MacMullan also explores the dynamics of the relationship between Vrabel and head coach Bill Belichick. Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant also offers a similar article on Vrabel.
Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe writes that Tom Brady has kept opposing head coaches and defensive coordinators awake at night trying to figure out how to shut him down. More times than not, they fail. While Jacksonville sacked Brady four times in the Patriots' 28-3 wild-card victory last Saturday, the Jaguars ultimately lost their battle to Brady as well. Jaguars defensive line coach Ray Hamilton had an approach that applied pressure to Brady, one the Broncos may copy in the divisional playoff game tomorrow night. ''Tom has such a quick release so it's difficult to sack him, or get to him anyway," Hamilton said. ''He's like [Peyton] Manning in that he has tremendous awareness around him. The one thing you can't allow your ends to do is get behind him because once you do he's going to slide around in that pocket and buy himself just enough time to make the play. It's all easier said than done. It's also very beneficial if you can get a rush up the middle against him, but [the Patriots'] offensive line does a very good job of keeping people off him."
Jim McCabe of the Boston Globe writes that the 2005 Broncos ran for 2,539 yards, second most in the NFL, and it will be on the strength of that vaunted ground game that they will look to put a halt to the Patriots' 10-game winning streak in the playoffs. The Broncos acknowledge the success with which New England has had stopping the run of late (just 70.7 yards per game over their last nine), but with all due respect, when the teams meet tomorrow night, Denver intends to go with its strength.
In her Patriots notebook, Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald reports that the Patriots practiced outside, just as they had all during the week, and every player participated in the media access portion of the workout. That amounted to a bit of jogging and stretching. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was removed from the injury report earlier in the week, seemed to be moving OK in the brief up-and-backs. Reserve offensive lineman Gene Mruczkowski was the lone addition to the injury report. He was listed as probable with a back injury.
Lee Rasizer of the Rocky Mountain News takes a look at the transformation of the Patriots secondary over the course of the regular season. There have been 10 different starters, 13 defensive backs with at least one tackle and six more defensive backs on injured reserve this season. The lack of continuity contributed to the NFL's 31st-ranked pass defense in the regular season at 231.4 yards per game. It's no wonder, then, that the Jacksonville Jaguars focused their attention on the back end of the Patriots' defense when the teams met last weekend in the wild card playoffs, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully. "Their weakness is their secondary and we understood that," Jaguars running back Fred Taylor said after the Pats' 28-3 victory. "You want to put pressure on their weakness." The Broncos could have a similar mindset heading into tomorrow night's divisional playoff game at Invesco Field at Mile High for two reasons.
Jarrett Bell of USA Today writes that since 2001, the Patriots are 6-0 in rematches against teams that beat them earlier in the season — including last year's AFC title game at Pittsburgh and Super Bowl XXXVI against St. Louis. They are 18-3 in all same-season rematches since 2001. "A lot of it is anti-cipating a similar game plan," says former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who retired in July after 10 seasons. "Why not? It worked the last time. But if it was a player or scheme they exploited, Bill (Belichick, Patriots coach) will change that. Then you add the motivational factor, 'They kicked our butts the last time, yada, yada, yada,' and there's your recipe for success."
Tom Curran of Providence Journal offers a story on defensive lineman Ty Warren. One of the real clock-punchers on the Patriots' defense is Ty Warren. The third-year defensive end doesn't put up big numbers or make a ton of tackles for losses. He just gets the job done on the left side of the team's defensive line. "Ty has had a good year," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said yesterday at his final press conference before the Divisional Playoff game in Denver. "I think he's improved a lot through the year. He's really made some good strides from where he was in the first third of the season to maybe the last two-thirds. I think he's been a very consistent player for us. With him andRichard [Seymour], or him and Jarvis [Green], however it works out there, we've gotten good, balanced play from both of those ends."
Tom Curran of the Providence Journal offers his daily sports blog with Patriots notes and commentary.