After a thrilling 29-23 Broncos victory over the Steelers last Sunday, Tim Tebow and the Broncos will roll into Foxborough on Saturday night. The Patriots and Broncos will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2005, a 27-13 Denver victory.
New England took the season meeting, 41-23, in Week 15, but Denver had the Patriots on the ropes before a three-turnover second quarter sunk the Broncos. New England allowed a season-high 167 rushing yards in the first quarter of that game, the highest total in the Bill Belichick era, but 27 unanswered Patriots points put New England up for good.
Can the Patriots stamp a ticket to the AFC Championship, or will Tebow be the story again?
Here are three areas to watch for on Saturday night:
* How will the Denver defense pressure Tom Brady? Brady completed 10-of-12 passes against extra pressure for 171 yards and a touchdown in Week 15 (but was sacked twice, including a thunderous hit from Elvis Dumervil). Brady wasn’t as efficient with four or fewer pass rushers (13-of-22, 59.1 pct), but was also far more protected (no sacks). Can Denver generate a significant pass rush without committing extra defenders?
The Patriots have lost their last three postseason games, with the common denominator being an ability to pressure Brady without committing extra defenders. Since 2008, Brady has averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and a +36 TD-Int differential against four or fewer pass rushers, but averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and has an even TD-Int differential in the two playoff losses to the Jets and Ravens.
Brady’s secondary receiving options torched the Broncos defense in their last meeting, even without injured wide receiver Deion Branch. Aaron Hernandez had a career day (nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown), and Chad Ochocinco caught a touchdown pass while the Broncos keyed in on Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
The balance between pressuring Brady and keeping his weapons covered is difficult to find, and it will be interesting to see how the Broncos try.
* Underestimate Tebow at your own risk. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau learned this the hard way last week. Pittsburgh crammed the box with defenders to stop Denver’s running game, daring Tebow to throw deep. Tebow responded by throwing five completions of at least 30 yards, one fewer then Pittsburgh’s defense allowed all season. Stopping the run while limiting the big play will be a likely goal for the Patriots defense. New England did a good job of mixing pressures against Tebow in Week 15, and Tebow was sacked four times in the second half.
This season, the difference between Tebow throwing against a normal four-man rush and extra pass rushers was huge, as his QBR plummets from 52.5 to 19.8 with five or more pass rushers. When pressured, he has a tendency to abandon the pocket quickly.
Against the Patriots, Tebow was 2-of-8 on throws outside the pocket, with all eight attempts coming in the second half playing from behind. When extra pressure forced Tebow outside the pocket, he was 0-for-5. The Patriots will try to keep Tebow off balance by mixing pressures again on Saturday.
* Who wins the turnover battle? Up 13-7 in Week 15, the Broncos ran only nine plays in the second quarter due to a pair of fumbles on their five rushes. A muffed punt also gifted the Patriots a field goal seconds before halftime, and Denver played from behind the entire second half. Denver’s offense is at its best when they can establish the run, but ball control has been an issue for the Broncos this year. Denver led the league with 17 fumbles lost and tied for sixth-worst in the NFL with a -12 turnover differential. Denver simply cannot repeat Week 15’s performance against the Patriots, one of the league’s best teams at converting takeaways into points scored. This season, only the Lions had more points off turnovers than the Patriots did (119), and giving Tom Brady extra possessions is a recipe for disaster.
Stats & Info’s Marty Callinan contributed to this piece.