The Denver Broncos travel to the depths of Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. Denver is coming off of an emotional 29-23 win over the defending AFC Conference champion Pittsburgh Steelers while New England had a bye in the first round. The Patriots won the last meeting in mid-December 41-23. The Broncos are 2-0 against the Patriots in the playoffs with both games being played in Denver (1986, 2005). Once again the Broncos are the heavy underdogs in this matchup. However, the Patriots have shown in the recent past that they’re not indestructible at home in January. They have lost their last two playoff games in the divisional round at Gillette. Game time is set for 6:00 p.m. MST on CBS.
Broncos: If the Broncos can not turn the ball over, and get their run game going, they will be able to keep this game close. In fact if Tim Tebow plays like he did against the Steelers (312 passing yards, 2 TDs, 50 rushing yards, 1 TD), the Broncos cannot let up off the gas. The Miami Dolphins were up 17-0 at halftime in week 16, yet the Pats won it by 3 points. The major key for the Broncos is to get the run game going like they did in December when they had 252 yards on the ground. That will eat the clock and keep the Patriots’ potent offense off the field. If the Broncos had not turned the ball over three times in the last meeting, we could easily be talking about a Broncos win in December. The Broncos need to end their drives with 7 points, not 3.
Patriots: We’ve heard the same story many times over the past week. The Pats’ offense is Tom Brady and his deadly receivers. They get into a quick rhythm and they get the ball out fast. Brady will sit in the pocket as comfortably as someone reading the Sunday morning newspaper over a pot of coffee. His receivers can run after the catch, and accounting for Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez on every play can take a toll on even the best defenses. The Patriots dominated the time of possession, holing on to the ball for 33:41. They had 72 plays on offense compared to the Broncos’ 58 plays.
Broncos: Tom Brady threw 2 touchdown passes in the last meeting, and those came when the Broncos would rush 3 or 4 guys. Their two sacks came when the Broncos brought 5 guys on one play and 6 on another. The Broncos need to apply the heavy pressure to Brady before he can get the ball out. Brady will complete his passes, but it’s the Broncos responsibility to not let 6-7 yard routes turn into 15-20 yard gains. December was marked by a lot of missed open field tackles. In addition to putting the pressure on Brady, the corners have to bump receivers off their routes and disrupt the timing of this offense.
Patriots: The Patriots won’t be caught off guard when they see Tebow pass. They watched the film from last week, and they know they’re going up against a very capable quarterback. Bill Belichick has a defensive background, and you can bet that he’s going to bring some different looks that the Broncos offense hasn’t seen this season. In the last game, the Pats started in a 4-3, but switched to the 3-4 near the end of the first quarter to help them protect the edges better. That’s when the Broncos offense went in the tank. They were able to get to Tebow four times, and they forced 2 fumbles. On paper the Pats defense doesn’t look all that strong, but they did a great job in December.
Broncos: Quan Crosby muffed a punt the last time these two teams met, so you can bet that Eddie Royal will be back there handling those duties. It’s a must to make New England work as much field as possible.
Patriots: The Pats are ranked 29th in kick returns. That doesn’t mean that the Broncos fall asleep, however. Special teams are as important as ever in the field position battle.
Broncos: The Broncos may be playing with “house money” but that doesn’t mean that they’re not in it to win it. This team has nothing to lose so they can lay it all out there. Should they win this one, John Fox should get coach of the year.
Patriots: Belichick and Co. are the best in the biz. However, a bye week may have taken a little air out of their balloon. Since 2005, home teams in divisional games have lost as many games as they’ve won. The past two Januarys at Gillette are included in that statistic.
Prediction: Patriots – 27 Broncos – 24.