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BOSTON (CBS) – The New England Patriots can clinch another AFC East title with a win on Sunday, but they will have to do it in a place that makes Tom Brady very uncomfortable.
The Mile High city has not been friendly to Brady, although he does have his only career win against the Broncos in Denver. But since that day in 2003, Brady has dropped three straight to the Broncos, the only team he has a losing record against at 1-5.
The Denver defense always seems to keep Brady to pedestrian numbers, and the games close enough to eventually claim. The biggest margin of victory for Denver has been 13 points, back in the 2005 playoffs, a game that is sure to anger any New England fan forced to remember Ben Watson chasing down Champ Bailey.
Stats: Pats-Broncos Head to Head
The Bronco’s defense is solid once again, but their quarterback is the one stealing the show these days. Winners of six straight and seven of eight, Denver is infected with “Tebow Mania,” a phenomina that cannot be explained.
The Patriots offensive line has their weekly tough task, and the defense could be scrambling trying to catch a quarterback that is scrambling the game. Here are some key matchups heading into Sunday’s game in Denver.
Spying On Tebow
As ugly and sometimes irritating it is to watch for the first three quarters, Tim Tebow knows how to lead his football team when it matters. He has led six game-winning fourth quarter or overtime drives in 11 career starts, and Denver now has visions of an AFC West title.
However unorthodox his throwing motion is, the Patriots do not care. Tebow has shown he can beat teams with his arm or his legs and that is all Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are worried about.
“Be alert, every play,” said corner Antwaun Molden, who faced Tebow as a member of the Texans last season. “He can hurt you in the pass; some say he can’t pass but from what I’ve seen on film the guy can pass. He can also run. He is more accurate than people think.”
For starters, they’ll focus on keeping Tebow and his 94 rush attempts in the pocket and make him throw.
“I think that, really, you just tell you D line to do their best to keep him contained and don’t let him out of the pocket,” said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. “I think that whoever gets after him, make sure you can get after him and get him to the ground.”
At 6-3, 236 lbs., Tebow is more like a fullback than a quarterback. So the Patriots will make sure they keep it simple, and finish their hits.
“I don’t look at him as a quarterback. He’s a quarterback-running back-fullback-tight end,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said Friday. “He’s a slasher. He’s a tough guy to play against. Just by looking at him on film, you see some guys go in and try to him up high and he bounces off some tackles. We have to definitely wrap up.”
“It comes down to somebody being responsible for him. You can’t just let him run all over the field,” said corner Nate Jones. “There are fundamental rules of football that you follow. You cover until the end of the play. It comes down to everybody doing their job. If everyone does their job, and nobody tries to do someone else’s job, we’ll all be fine.”
Felger & Mazz: Tim Tebow – Behind The Numbers
So how do they stop it? So far, only one team has been able to figure that part out. The Patriots have been great at stopping the run this season, minus last week’s 126 yards to Washington’s Roy Helu. One way BB and crew can try, try, to contain Tebow is designating a “spy” player to keep tabs on him at all times.
While anything with “spy” in it has usually been a sore subject around Gillette Stadium, Belichick said having someone keep an eye on Tebow only works if they can get him down to the ground when he scampers their way.
“You need somebody that can tackle the quarterback. Depends on what the quarterback’s skills are. I don’t know if you want to spy [Ben] Roethlisberger with the same guy you’d want to spy Michael Vick with. It depends on who the player is. There’s no point in spying him if you can’t tackle him,” said Belichick.
“If you can get it done, then hopefully that eliminates that player as a runner,” said Belichick. “But you’re playing with 10 players, then you have one less guy to do whatever else you need to do. It just depends on what your priorities are.”
“Different teams have done it for certain plays on and off,” Tebow said of getting spied. “I think it’s just something you have to be ready for. If they do, it opens up somebody else and that’s always a good thing.”
Spying will take away a defender in the middle of the field, which could open up big plays for receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Thomas has come on as of late, minus a key drop of a potential game-winning touchdown last week. Four of his 18 receptions this season have been for TDs, three coming in just the last two weeks.
But keeping tabs on Tebow will be key. Ninkovich could be one of the players asked to “spy” on him, and is not worried about not being able to tackle the “Mile High Messiah,” even though he is bigger and more elusive than the average running back.
“There are a lot of guys out there that is big, I’m not really worried about size,” the linebacker said.
Although he hasn’t shied away from it, more physical play from the Patriots defense could make Tebow think twice about putting his head down and keeping the ball.
“You just have to read your keys and play assignment football,” said safety James Ihedigbo. “They have the ability to make big plays in the passing game if you let them, but you have to play fundamental defense; read your keys and play physical ball.”
Making Tebow throw, and throw early, will be key for New England. Denver has Willis McGahee joining him in the back field, and if both rushers get going early it will play into the Broncos game. But if New England can get up early, and get Tebow, who has completed less than half of his passes, to throw early it will get him out of that comfort zone.
At least until the fourth quarter. But the Pats won’t be changing things up in the final frame like other teams have. Most teams have stopped keeping the pressure on Tebow in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots don’t plan on changing anything up.
“From the first quarter to the fourth quarter, playing the same way and keep him in the pocket. Don’t let him beat you with his feet,” said Ninkovich, not wanting to become another victim of the “Tebow Magic.”
“He obviously has the skill set as a quarterback that not many have. His team follows him just like we follow Tom,” said Ninkovich. “I think you just have to go out there and play him like we play every other quarterback.”
“You can play 55 minutes of good football, but if you don’t have it together for those [final] five minutes of the ballgame, those 55 minutes really don’t mean anything,” said Wilfork. “The more critical it gets, the better they get.”
The key for New England will be to get ahead early, and take Denver out of it. This will be their chance to put a full 60-minutes of football together. If they don’t, Tebow will make them pay.
Tom Brady vs Denver
Tom Brady has not had a fun time against the Denver Broncos at just 1-6 in his career, including the playoffs.
His first time against the Broncos, way back in 2001, Brady threw four interceptions in a 31-20 loss. Since, he has put up fairly decent numbers but has only walked away with one win. At 1-5, Denver is the only team Brady has a losing record against in the NFL in the regular season.
“Man, that’s pretty bad. Hopefully we get to 2-5 this week,” Brady said Wednesday. “Maybe it’s the mile-high air. Maybe there’s something to that, I don’t know. We just haven’t played very well I don’t think. We’ve had some very close games against them; we just haven’t pulled it out.”
“I mean, losing sucks; you hate losing, but there’s nothing I can do about those games in the past now, so I’ll just try to win this one. That will make me feel pretty good,” he said.
That won’t be easy though. With Tebow stealing all the headlines, Denver’s D is riding under the radar a bit. They are not great by any stretch, but they get after the quarterback and make him work. The Broncos are fourth in the NFL in sacks, bringing QB’s down 37 times so far this season. Leading the way for Denver is rookie linebacker Von Miller, who has 11.5 of those sacks.
“He’s a phenomenal player; watching him play is pretty awesome,” said Brady. “And then with Elvis [Dumervil] on the other side – they’ve really got two guys that can rush the passer. I know I stand up here every week and talk about how good of a pass rush we’re going to face and we seem to continue to face them. They really get after the quarterback.”
It’s just another week that the offensive line will have their hands full.
“We have our work cut out for us,” said tackle Matt Light, before adding in a little of his humor. “From my point of view, it’s been that way for roughly 11 seasons.”
The problem with Miller, much like Dallas’ Demarcus Ware, is that he lines up everywhere on the field, and can do just about everything.
“He can run the edge, he can come inside, he’s very quick and athletic, but he’s got good power and he’s a really strong player too.” Belichick said of Miller. “You just can’t sit back and wait for him to make some kind of athletic move; he’ll run them over. He’s very good in pursuit. He makes a lot of plays downfield after the ball is thrown. He’ll chase a guy down, for five, six, seven-yard gain and try to strip the ball as he’s tackling him. He’s not out of a lot of plays.”
Add players like Dumerville (7.5 sacks), defensive tackle Ryan McBean (4), and linebacker DJ Williams (5), and the Broncos will be keeping the New England offensive line very busy.
“Their defensive line, they can pass-rush the quarterback so quick,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “Their outside linebackers are so fast they can cover and they can blitz like it’s nothing.”
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Now the Denver defense as a whole has not been great. During their current win streak, they’ve only allowed 20 or more points twice, but they haven’t been playing great offenses. The Chiefs, New York Jets, Chargers and Bears scored a total of 46 points against Denver, with the Raiders and Vikings putting up a total of 56 points in their loses to the Broncos.
The last time the Denver defense went up against a good offense, they gave up 31 points to the Detroit Lions (they scored an additional 14 points off two defensive touchdowns). Tom Brady and Co. are much more like Detroit’s offense, if not better, than any of the others. So the Broncos will be looking at their first high-scoring offense in nearly two months.
If Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson gave Denver’s D fits, imagine what the Brady-Gronkowski-Welker trio can do. Denver has never really shut down Brady, just frustrated him enough to keep games close and pull it out in the end. If they can keep it close, they’ll give their team a chance.
Stats: Pats- Broncos Capsule
This week will be a test for both sides; Denver getting facing a power-house offense, and the Patriots defense against a player that make them pay if they put together another 55-minute effort.
Tune in to the Patriots-Broncos game Sunday on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub at 4:15pm. Pregame coverage begins Sunday morning at 11:30am on WBZ-TV with Patriots Gameday; pregame coverage on the Hub begins at 1pm. After the game, tune in to The Postgame Show on 98.5 and Patriots Fifth Quarter on MyTV38.