A touchdown's worth of thoughts on the stunning Broncos-Steelers finish that sets up next Saturday's matchup between the Patriots and Broncos at Gillette Stadium:
1. Patriots benefit from rematch. One of the takeaways from the Patriots' 41-23 win over the Broncos on Dec. 18 was how the defense had to adjust to Denver's unique option-based offense. Players talked about how it was one thing to practice against it -- they had Julian Edelman as the scout-team QB on the option package, and Ryan Mallett as the scout-team QB in the passing game -- but something significantly different to actually play against it. The Patriots' run defense struggled in the first quarter before settling down, and that experience should benefit the Patriots in this playoff rematch. Turnovers were big for the Patriots in that Dec. 18 game.
2. McDaniels angle hard to ignore. In the end, the players will decide the game on the field. We know that. But the storyline of coach Josh McDaniels returning to the Patriots and helping prepare against the team for which he served as head coach in 2009 and 2010, is compelling. McDaniels' two first-round picks in 2010 were quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Demaryius Thomas, and the Tebow/Thomas connection hooked up for the 80-yard touchdown in overtime to beat the Steelers. You can't make this stuff up. McDaniels' information on the strengths and weaknesses of Broncos personnel figures to be valuable to the Patriots in the game-planning process.
3. Avoiding Steelers was desired. One of the more common lines of thinking entering the playoffs was that the Patriots would benefit from avoiding a back-to-back set against the Steelers and Ravens because the physical style of play would take a lot out of the team. Those who adopted that line of thinking get their wish, although watching the banged-up Steelers on Sunday, they didn't look like the same team that beat the Patriots, 25-17, on Oct. 30.
4. Should help to have Spikes back. Given the importance of limiting the Broncos' running game -- they had 252 yards on 31 carries against the Patriots on Dec. 18 -- the return of Brandon Spikes is notable. Spikes, one of the Patriots' best run-stuffing linebackers, did not play that day because of a knee injury. He returned for the season finale, giving him an important tune-up for a game in which the Patriots figure to play their fair share of eight men in the box. Safety Patrick Chung also didn't play in Dec. 18.
5. Broncos struggled against Hernandez. In the Dec. 18 meeting, the Broncos held the Patriots' top two pass-catching weapons relatively in check -- Rob Gronkowski had four catches for 53 yards, while Wes Welker had 4 for 41 -- but tight end Aaron Hernandez hurt them most (9 catches, 129 yards, 1 TD). Receiver Deion Branch did not play (groin). The Broncos figure to place a heavy emphasis on better tackling after the catch.
6. Short week and Tim Tebow's passing not to be overlooked. This is good spot for the Patriots, playing at home and getting the Broncos on a short week (they played Sunday and now come back for a Saturday road game). That's one of the big benefits of the bye. Tebow was 11-of-22 for 194 yards against the Patriots on Dec. 18, but he looked like a more confident passer against the Steelers (10-of-21 for 316, 2 TDs), converting on the deep ball. The Patriots figure to play differently than the Steelers, with the idea of not leaving themselves as exposed on the back end to protect against the big play.