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Tebows Broncos. Let’s break it down.
The top storylines:
1. Tebow! I get the feeling elaboration isn’t necessary.
2. Josh McDaniels seeks revenge. The former Broncos head coach — and the man who drafted Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas — was officially added to the Patriots coaching staff just minutes after Tebow hit Thomas for the game-winning touchdown Sunday night in Denver.
3. New England tries to end its playoff slump. Hard to believe it’s been seven years since they won their last Super Bowl and four years since they won their last playoff game. Since the Giants spoiled their perfect season in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots have gone 0-2 in two home playoff games. In that same span, Tom Brady has only lost one regular-season home game.
The last time they met…
- Less than four weeks ago: Patriots 41, Broncos 23. But that obviously doesn’t do it justice.
- It should be noted that the Broncos were actually running all over the Pats in the first quarter, outplaying them by a wide margin. But then they fumbled three times in the second quarter, leading to 13 New England points. As a result, they trailed in the second half and thus failed to rediscover the power running game that gave them an early edge.
- Tebow actually made some decent passes against a lackluster secondary, but for whatever reason, the Broncos didn’t unleash him until it was too late. He did, however, rush for 93 yards and two scores.
Injuries to watch:
- Denver will again likely be without three key starters in Brian Dawkins, Eric Decker and Chris Kuper. Only Dawkins has an outside shot at playing. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are both less than 100 percent, too.
- The Pats are banged up, especially on the offensive line and in the secondary. But it’s really just bumps and bruises, and everyone of consequence should play Saturday night. They haven’t missed top pass rusher Andre Carter (who’s out for the year) as much as many assumed they would.
I’m taking the Patriots to win, but not handily. Here are the factors at play:
1. The Patriots are much healthier than the Steelers were. Pittsburgh’s injuries were the single biggest factor in that wild-card game. They weren’t the same on either side of the ball without Maurkice Pouncey, Max Starks, Ryan Clark, and Brett Keisel and with Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu hobbled. New England is actually healthier now than it was when these teams met back in Week 15, with defensive starters Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes back in the lineup.
2. New England’s No. 2-ranked passing game will create problems for Denver’s secondary. The Broncos’ inexperienced safeties were dumbfounded by Brady in the first meeting, and it’s very unlikely they get Dawkins back for this game (and even if they do, how effective would he be?). This passing game is much scarier and healthier than Pittsburgh’s was. Denver’s pass rush can carry them through a game, but Brady rarely gets sacked and Dumervil and Miller were barely factors for much of the game Sunday against Pittsburgh. Both could be running out of gas.
3. New England’s pass rush hasn’t missed a beat without Andre Carter. The rush actually played a significant role in New England’s Week 15 victory over Denver, sacking Tebow four times and forcing him to fumble twice. Many figured they’d take a hit when Carter went down for the season in December, but they’ve averaged 4.3 sacks per game without Carter after averaging just 2.1 sacks per game with him.
4. Tebow might not be able to shock the New England defense. The cat is out of the bag — he can throw passes like a real NFL quarterback. After what they saw last weekend, don’t expect the Patriots to make the same mistake Pittsburgh did by loading the box and daring Tebow to throw against single coverage. The Patriots actually applied the right strategy back in Week 15, which isn’t surprising because I think Belichick respects Tebow’s arm (and McDaniels certainly does). Yes, Kyle Arrington is an easier target for Demaryius Thomas than Ike Taylor was, and the Broncos are going from the best pass defense in football to the second worst, but that might only mean that Belichick doesn’t get trapped like Dick LeBeau seemed to. He’ll give his secondary a lot of support.
5. But that could help Denver’s running game. Obviously fewer men in the box benefits the league’s top-ranked rush offense from the regular season, so the Broncos will likely have to repeat what they did in the first half quarter of the Week 15 matchup by running wild. I have no doubt they can do that, but the presence of Spikes and the adjustments Belichick has surely made will make that more difficult.
6. Would you believe that New England’s defense actually gave up three fewer points per game than the Broncos defense? We’ve heard all year about how Denver’s defense carried a lackluster offense, but they still surrendered 24.4 points per game, a number exactly three points north of the Patriots’ average of 21.4. That’s because the Pats have been extremely good in the red zone. And that could be a game-changer on Saturday.
7. The Broncos might not have an answer for New England’s tight ends. Denver will have to pick its poison with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Last time out, they picked Hernandez, who caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Without Dawkins, they surrendered 182 total yards on 13 catches to that dynamic duo.
8. But the Patriots are very slow starters. And suddenly, Tebow has found a way to succeed in all four quarters. That’s dangerous for the Pats, who were somehow outscored 87-82 in the first quarter this season. Considering that they outscored their opponents by 176 points in the other three quarters (an average of a touchdown per quarter), that’s pretty amazing. The problem has been especially bad of late, as the Pats have been outscored 37-7 in their last three first quarters. They can’t expect Denver to turn it over three times in the second quarter Saturday, so a slow start could be a death knell for the Patriots this time around.
9. And home-field advantage might not be a massive factor. I know the Patriots went 7-1 at Gillette Stadium this year and that the one loss was their first in the regular season since like 1993, but they have back-to-back home losses in the playoffs and have lost three straight playoff games overall. Plus, Denver’s actually been better away than at home in the Tebow era, winning in San Diego, Kansas City and Oakland and going 5-1 overall outside of Colorado.
10. Despite the numbers, the Broncos might be the hotter team. New England has won eight straight, but how much of its momentum was killed by the first-round bye? It’s tough to tell, but it’s interesting that they had also won eight straight headed into their first playoff game last year, and they fell at home to the Jets after having a bye. The Pats have been hotter on paper, but Denver has all the momentum.
11. Both teams are still mysterious. In that neither have had a lot of litmus tests. They were a combined 1-6 this season against teams that finished with winning records, and that only win came when the Broncos beat the 9-7 Bengals with Kyle Orton at quarterback way back in Week 2. Considering that, I’m not willing to take New England to win in blowout fashion.
12. And then there’s the #TebowTime factor. It’s an intangible that for me is worth at least a few points in trying to predict the final score.
In conclusion, the 13.5-point spread seems ridiculously high considering the circumstances. I still think the Broncos have a very tough time stopping New England’s weapons, but this is a one-score game in my opinion.
GLS prediction: Patriots 34, Broncos 26
(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)