Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's road game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Mike: Let's get right to it this week. Patriots-Broncos, and everyone is talking about Tim Tebow and the magic he's creating in Denver. This might be one of the few weeks since Tom Brady rose to superstar status that he's clearly the second quarterback -- in terms of media attention -- in a game. Your thoughts on Tebow?
Tedy: It's been the topic of conversation for a while and it's deserved. He's done some amazing things out there in Denver, the way he's been able to lead comebacks and will his team to victory. All these fourth-quarter comebacks, they're miraculous at times. You almost don't believe he's going to do it again, but he does it over and over. I like the kid. I like the way he plays football. He's not textbook -- he's not Aaron Rodgers, he's not Tom Brady or Drew Brees. He isn't a true passer, he's more of a football player back there playing quarterback. And I respect that tremendously.
Mike: Tebow's passing stats on the season: 96-of-198 for 1,290 yards, with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. That's a completion percentage of 48.5, which is very low. At the same time, you see he doesn't make big mistakes.
Tedy: He does a great job with ball security, taking care of the ball, and that includes when he's a runner in that read-option. You mention some of those stats, but here's what stands out to me: In the fourth quarter and overtime, he ranks among the NFL leaders in passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt, and passing first downs. He's a different guy in the fourth quarter than he is in the first three quarters, so when the game is on the line, he performs at his best. That's what you want a quarterback to do.
Mike: You mentioned Tebow as a runner and he ranks second on the team in rushing yards, with 517 yards on 94 carries, and three rushing touchdowns. You've mentioned the different style of running game the Broncos have, with the option and more, and that makes this a unique challenge for a Patriots rush defense that surrendered 170 yards to the Redskins last Sunday. Tebow helps make it go.
Tedy: When it comes to Tebow, I think one of the most important things from a defensive perspective is not to get too emotionally involved. I think that's what happened with the Chicago Bears last week. It sounded to me like linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher maybe didn't take the Broncos' offense seriously -- Briggs before the game and Urlacher afterward when he called Tebow a good running back. Once you start buying into all this Tebow hype and Tebowmania, you can find yourself just like the Bears defense late in that game when all they were doing was watching Tebow. They weren't worrying about the receivers behind them, who were wide open, and that's where Chicago's main problem was -- not focusing on the offense as a whole, and focusing too much on the quarterback.
Mike: Not surprisingly, what you're talking about seemed to be a big part of Bill Belichick's message to players this week, which in turn was what players mentioned in media interviews. It could be summed up this way: "This is no one-man band." It was almost as if Belichick was mentally conditioning the players' minds early in the week to prepare them for the intense outside influences that would make this all about Tebow.
Tedy: It's not just the message to players, it's the message that he's sending out to the other team also. When players in that Patriots locker room talk about how it's not just Tim Tebow, it's the defense, it's Von Miller, it's Elvis Dumervil, Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey, Willis McGahee ... they're throwing out respect to other members of the Broncos, because that's part of the Broncos' motivation in that locker room. Everyone thinks it is Tim Tebow, and all those other players can possibly feel slighted. The Patriots are recognizing the complete team publicly, and in doing so, they're not giving the Broncos any added motivation. Psychology can be such a big part of the game sometimes.
Mike: One of the big questions with Tebow is if his style of play can be a winning approach sustained over the long haul and lead to a championship. I saw a tweet this week from John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations, who said he felt like the Mile High magic from the 1990s was back.
Tedy: I think it can. A lot of people say "No, it's not possible to win championships," but I've seen teams win championships without an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady at quarterback. This is why football is so great. There's more than one way to win. With Tebow, it's another aspect the offense has -- he's not as skilled as a thrower, but it's a different element he brings. For the Broncos to win with this type of formula, they need that defense to continue to be boosted up and even more special-teams weapons, which highlights the need for playmakers outside of just the offense. It is possible to do. The way they are constructed now, is it possible? I have some doubts this year. But if you build this system with Tim Tebow at quarterback, focusing on other aspects of your team -- offensive line, running back, defense, special teams -- it can be done. The question is, does John Elway want to cultivate this type of team and can John Fox and his coaching staff sell it to the team for the long haul?
Broncos defense vs. Patriots offense
Mike: That's a nice transition into a closer look at a non-Tebow aspect of this matchup. Yes, believe it or not, there are other players not named Tebow involved in this game. Your thoughts on the Broncos' defense?
Tedy: A lot of people say out there that it's not just Tim Tebow, it's the defense playing well. I don't know. I don't know how good they're playing, to tell you the truth. This is an untested defense in my mind. They've beaten Oakland, Kansas City, the Jets, San Diego with a struggling Philip Rivers, Minnesota with a rookie quarterback, and Chicago with Caleb Hanie and no Matt Forte. How good is this defense? I don't know. I looked back at their game against the Detroit Lions, when Matthew Stafford was there, and they were moving the ball on the Broncos' defense. That was Oct. 30. Have they gotten better up to this point? Yes, but still, I don't think they've been tested the way they're going to be tested when Tom Brady comes into town. They have no answer for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the two tight ends up the middle. The Patriots' offense will have to be efficient because of the way Tim Tebow and the Broncos' offense controls time of possession and doesn't turn the ball over, but I don't see this Broncos' defense stopping them.
Mike: One way I could envision it happening is if the pressure gets to Brady and disrupts the rhythm of the passing game. Edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are a solid pass-rushing tandem, with Miller -- the No. 2 overall pick of this year's draft -- having totaled 11.5 sacks.
Tedy: Great year so far for Miller. Very explosive. If I'm the Patriots, I run it right at him to try to slow him down. You make your point of attack right where he is. That slows down pass-rushers when you see two tight ends -- a YY wing -- over there. Maybe you put an extra offensive lineman over there not only in the running game but for protection purposes. Miller must be accounted for because he has unique skills.
Mike: Some other familiar names, with linebacker D.J. Williams, cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Brian Dawkins among them.
Tedy: I like those guys. There is a lot of respect for them. I do think a lot of the success of this defense is because of the offense, the way they control the time of possession. They're making opposing offenses earn it and making them drive the long field, 70- and 80-yard drives. When you're going against quarterbacks who are backups, or a Mark Sanchez, or a struggling Philip Rivers, or Caleb Hanie, and you consistently make them drive the length of the field, you are going to have success. What I want to see from this Denver defense is if it can stop an offense with a quarterback like Brady.
Mike: One of the things you mentioned was the Broncos not having an answer for Rob Gronkowski. I know you liked him a lot coming out of the draft last year, from your alma mater Arizona, but how surprised are you with the big step he's taken in his second season?
Tedy: This is insane production that he's having. It's something you haven't seen in the history of the NFL, a tight end who catches this many touchdowns. Enjoy it, Patriots followers, because I don't know how long this pace can continue once defenses finally realize that he's worthy of an Antonio Gates-type and Tony Gonzalez-type game plan. If a Bill Belichick-coached defense saw a Gronkowski, you'd have defensive linemen hitting him before they rushed the passer. You'd see that punt-team vice like they did on receiver Mike Wallace last year in Pittsburgh with two defensive backs on him, which tells the quarterback, "You have to go somewhere else." That type of defensive strategy is coming, and it could happen this week.
Broncos offense vs. Patriots defense
Mike: We touched on Tebow quite a bit earlier, and how he leads the rushing offense and its unique style, but let's round it out and talk a bit more about their overall system.
Tedy: I think the adjustment level of this offense makes it extremely difficult for a Patriots defense that has adjustments for a lot of things. In watching film on the offense, you see end-arounds, wide receiver passes, halfback pass possibilities, the read option, traditional option, inverted wishbones, direct snaps to the running backs, an extra lineman along the line of scrimmage. There are so many things they do that make you adjust and it can give you problems. I like the way the Jets attacked this running game, with a 3-4 defense and using linemen to take on blocks and not making it easy on Tebow to run those various types of plays. They made him make tough decisions, and I think that's the way to attack it at times. Be disciplined along the defensive front and always set the edge on Tebow. Keep him away from the perimeter of your defense. That's where he hurts you.
Mike: The Broncos have had some good stability along the offensive line, as they've had the same starting unit in every game this season. When you think about injuries, that's a good run for left tackle Ryan Clady, left guard Zane Beadles, center J.D. Walton, right guard Chris Kuper and right tackle Orlando Franklin. Former Patriot Russ Hochstein is a top interior backup, but he hasn't played much because the starters have stayed healthy.
Tedy: It's been Willis McGahee as the lead running back (920 yards, 199 carries, 4.6 avg.) and this is the NFL's top-rated rushing attack in terms of yards per game (156.2). He's always a tough tackle and he runs hard. The one thing I noticed about McGahee in the last couple of weeks, though, is that he's been giving up the ball. So he's a ball security target for the Patriots' defense. Maybe you can get a fumble or two off him.
Mike: So much focus is naturally placed on the Broncos' running game, but how about the passing attack?
Tedy: I look at their receivers as scrappers. You have Demaryius Thomas, who obviously has ability, but I was thinking more about guys like Eric Decker (team-high 42 catches) and Eddie Royal (16 receptions). They have shown they can make plays that can hurt you, and I think that's the whole thing when looking at this offense. They might not jump off the page at you in terms of spectacular weapons. They're just solid football players. In a way, that's even more dangerous sometimes. With all the attention going to this running game, Darrelle Revis said it best when he mentioned not falling asleep out there. As strange as that sounds, it's the truth.
Mike: Decker is an interesting player. The Patriots liked him coming out of the 2010 draft, and he went three selections before they picked Taylor Price at No. 90. Had Decker been there, the Patriots might have drafted him but former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, then Denver's head coach, got to him first. Decker was a challenging projection for scouts because of a combination of a foot injury and having played in a few different offensive systems at the University of Minnesota. The Broncos look like they hit it with Decker.
Tedy: As for the Patriots' defense, it's easy to harp on the negatives but here are a few positives. The second half against the Redskins, you saw cornerback Devin McCourty start to make a little bit of an improvement. I think it's big now that linebacker Dane Fletcher is starting to get going, and he was making plays. And you're seeing linebacker Jerod Mayo make a couple big plays these last two weeks. That's the next step in his game that some people have been waiting for him to take.
Mike: This is the area of the team that Patriots followers seem to have the biggest concern with. One of the questions I hear often is, "Can they win a championship with this defense?"
Special teams & predictions
Tedy: You can't talk about this game without giving special teams its due. Broncos kicker Matt Prater, how clutch is he? He made those two long field goals last week -- 59 and 51 yards -- to tie the game late in the fourth quarter and win it in overtime. When you play in Mile High, the ball travels a little farther. To see those 50-yard-plus attempts, that's possible in this environment on a consistent basis. The punter, Britton Colquitt, has the most punts in the NFL. He's been another reason why this field-position-battle style of the Broncos has worked. The offense takes care of the ball, the punter does his part, the defense plays well and gets the stop, and then all of a sudden you've gained 15-20 yards of field position.
Mike: And we know the snaps will be true with Lonie Paxton, the former Patriot now in his third season in Denver.
Tedy: The best in the business.
Mike: Let's get to our predictions. This should be a great environment for football and the Patriots haven't shown any signs of buckling in those types of settings this year. I think the matchup lines up well for the Patriots, assuming they can protect Tom Brady. I'm not sure the Broncos have what it takes to exploit the primary weakness of the Patriots' defense -- against the pass. The Patriots have talked for weeks about playing a full 60-minute game, and I think this is where it happens. Patriots 35, Broncos 17.
Tedy: I agree with you, Reiss. This Denver Broncos defense won't be able to stop Tom Brady & Co. However, the Patriots defense will experience just as many problems with Tim Tebow and that Broncos offensive unit. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has another big day. Patriots 38, Broncos 30.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.