By: Tony Meale
Quarterback: We all know Tom Brady’s story; we all know Tim Tebow’s story. Interesting to note, however, is the fact that the Patriots have not won a playoff game since losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. They’ve played two postseason games since, both at home, and lost to the Ravens and Jets – teams, just like Denver, that like to run the ball and control the clock. As for Tebow, let’s just say this: If he can throw for 300+ yards, run for 50+ yards and not turn the ball over against a top-ranked Steelers defense, then there’s no reason he can’t play well against the Patriots, which ended the regular season ranked 31st in the league in that category.
Slight Advantage: Patriots
Running Backs: Willis McGahee fumbled twice against Pittsburgh – one of which led to the Steelers’ game-tying score – but there’s no doubt he has been a workhorse this season. In the 11 games he has played since Tebow became the starter, McGahee has averaged 4.8 yards per carry and four times topped the 100-yard mark. He also had seven carries for 70 yards in Week 15 against a Patriots defense that ranks 17th against the run. New England, meanwhile, has a revolving door at running back led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who led the team with 667 yards and 11 touchdowns – but who averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. The Patriots have better depth, but in terms of a true No. 1 back, Denver has the edge.
Slight Advantage: Broncos
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: Demaryius Thomas had the catch of Wild Card weekend, hauling in an 80-yard touchdown reception against the Steelers in overtime en route to finishing with 204 yards. His teammate, Eric Decker, however, sustained an MCL injury and will likely not play against New England. The Patriots, on the other hand, have one of the best receiving corps in all of football. Wes Welker had 122 catches for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns this year; Rob Gronkowski had the best season by a tight end ever, finishing with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns; Aaron Hernandez had 910 yards and had seven touchdowns; and old reliable Deion Branch caught 50 balls for 702 yards and five scores.
Significant advantage: Patriots
Defense: Neither defense was great statistically this year; Denver ranked 20th in total defense, while New England ranked 31st. But the Patriots were far better where it counts – scoring defense. They ranked 15th at 21.4 points per game, whereas Denver ranked 24th at 24.4. The Broncos, however, have more playmakers. Tebow theatrics aside, Denver’s pass rush on Ben Roethlisberger was the difference in that game, as Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller were in the backfield seemingly every play. Losing Brian Dawkins hurts, but Champ Bailey is still an elite shutdown corner.
Slight advantage: Broncos
Special Teams: Both teams have adequate kick and punt returners (Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman for New England, Quan Cosby and Eddie Royal for Denver), but I trust the Patriots a little more when it comes to holding onto the football. Matt Prater and Stephen Gostkowski are both veteran cold-weather kickers, but I’ll give the nod to Gostkowski, who has more experience kicking in Foxboro.
Slight advantage: Patriots
Bottom Line: After beating Denver 41-23 in Week 15, Brady and Tebow met at midfield, where Brady appeared to mouth the words, “We’ll see you again.” Brady was right. A key point in that game came in the second quarter, when Denver, facing a 4th-and-1 inside the 10, elected to kick a 26-yard field goal as opposed to going for what could have resulted in a 20-7 lead. In this game, Denver has to take chances. Last week, I truly felt in my heart that Denver would win, but I picked Pittsburgh by a field goal because I flat out didn’t have the guts to pick the Broncos. This week is a little different. Playing in Foxboro doesn’t help the Patriots so much as it hurts the Broncos, which won’t have the Mile High faithful to feed off of. And while Denver’s pass rush looked great against a hobbled Big Ben, Brady will have full mobility. Still, the fact that New England is a two-touchdown favorite is borderline laughable, as this game, like the game against Pittsburgh, will come down to the fourth quarter. But in the end, Brady and Bill Belichick, whose playoff mystique has diminished somewhat, will make enough plays to survive – this despite ending the regular season on a bad note when the Pats faced deficits of 17-0 or worse in their final two games.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Broncos 31
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. Follow Tony @tonymeale