Can Patriots, Belichick stop Tim Tebow?

Bill Belichick says the Patriots are well aware of Tim Tebow's late-game heroics. Icon SMI

The AFC East has been "Tebowed" twice already this season.

In Week 7, the Miami Dolphins led 15-0 in the fourth quarter before Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to 18 straight points in an overtime victory. It was Tebow's first start of the 2011 season.

In Week 11, the New York Jets allowed Tebow to drive Denver 95 yards in the final minutes for the game-winning score. It was capped by Tebow's 20-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds remaining.

Are the New England Patriots Tebow's next victim?

The Patriots (10-3), winners of five straight, will travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to face Tebow and the equally hot Broncos (8-5). Teams have been unable to solve Tebow and Denver's read-option offense for four quarters. The Broncos have won six in a row. They are 7-1 with Tebow under center and in first place in the AFC West.

This will be an intriguing challenge for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. He's developed a reputation as a defensive mastermind and is known to come up with schemes to confuse quarterbacks. But that hasn't been the case for Belichick this season. New England has the NFL's worst-rated defense, allowing 416 yards per game.

Rex Ryan and New York's defense couldn't stop Tebow. Neither could Miami and veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Will Belichick find the right formula to stop the Tebow train?

"They're at the top of their game," Belichick said of Tebow and Denver's offense this week. "Hopefully, it's our target to get to the top of ours by Sunday."

The good news for New England is its run defense is solid. The Patriots are ranked 13th against the run. Players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo should allow New England to match Denver's physically up front.

The Broncos lead the NFL in rushing with an average of 156.2 yards per game. Tebow is at his best when he's a dual threat with his legs and arm. He's thrown for 1,290 yards and rushed for an additional 517 yards.

"Tim is a strong runner, good athlete, he can hurt you out of the pocket," Belichick said. "We've faced other quarterbacks like that. The big thing is just the whole offense. They run the ball, they have different types of running plays, running attack and then they have a lot of good receivers and they throw the ball down the field. There are a lot of challenges there."

Denver likes to run the ball the first three quarters to eat up clock and limit possessions. That keeps games close for Tebow to pull it out in the end.

With New England's defense struggling, expect the "Tom Brady factor" to play a huge role in this game. This game will be as much about Brady versus Tebow as it is Tebow versus New England's defense.

Often, Brady is New England's best defender. The MVP candidate has been stellar. The Patriots are second in the league in total offense (424.4 yards) and third in scoring (30.5 points). Last week was a perfect example as Brady continued to put up points to barely stay ahead of the Washington Redskins. New England won that game, 34-27.

A shootout between Brady and Tebow definitely favors New England. Therefore, Brady scoring early and often against Denver's defense is key to pressuring Tebow to match that production. Five of Tebow's seven wins have come by scoring fewer than 20 points.

"I think that's the difference," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "That's something that the Broncos haven't faced yet -- the firepower that they're going to have to deal with Sunday. Denver's defense is quite good, but not against Brady and those guys.

"I think Denver's defense is in for a long day. Brady is going to put up 28-35 points against just about anybody, including Denver. In the end, I think that gets Tebow out of his game. Even though he's getting better as a passer, that‘s not the game they want to play with him."

New England's biggest fear is keeping the game close in the final minutes. That is when Tebow is unleashed and becomes a completely different player. Many in Denver call the fourth quarter "Tebow Time."

According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Tebow has the NFL's highest Total Quarterback Rating (96.3) in the fourth quarter. This season Tebow has performed better than everyone down the stretch, including Brady (83.0) and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (91.7).

"They've had a lot of production," Belichick said of Denver's offense late in games. "I wouldn't say it's dramatically different. It's not like they run out a new whole thing. They’ve done it in different ways — they’ve done it throwing the ball, running the ball, driving it, making big plays. We’ll have to obviously study it a little bit more carefully but from what I’ve seen, they’ve made plays when they had to make them, critical plays."

The challenge for Belichick and New England is to get a big enough lead in the first three quarters, especially on the road. That way, the Patriots can avoid being the latest team to get "Tebowed."