The Denver Broncos figure to have plenty of support from the local crowd when they battle the winless and turmoil-laden Dolphins on Sunday, as the game will mark the long-anticipated first start of the 2011 season for in-state hero Tim Tebow.
Prior to becoming a surprise first-round pick of the Broncos in the 2010 draft, the enormously-popular Tebow carved out a legendary career as a quarterback at the University of Florida. The athletic left-hander helped the Gators to a pair of BCS national championships, the second of which came in a victory over a University of Oklahoma team guided by future NFL Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford at Sun Life Stadium in January of 2009.
Tebow also led his Jacksonville-area high school to a win in the Florida state championship game held in Miami during his senior season.
The 24-year's old professional accomplishments are limited to three starts at the tail end of his rookie season and 92 career pass attempts, but with veteran incumbent Kyle Orton struggling once again in Denver's last outing, head coach John Fox decided during the team's just-completed bye week to give Tebow the nod for Sunday's tilt.
"Everybody in [the locker room] understands that we are in a production-based business, and right now all of us are 1-4 and we're trying to change that," said Fox when announcing the switch. "We have to do something to win football games."
Tebow did bring a spark after replacing an ineffective Orton during the second half of Denver's 29-24 Week 5 loss to San Diego, orchestrating a pair of touchdown drives that pulled the Broncos to within two points after trailing 23-10 at intermission. The former Heisman Trophy recipient ran and passed for a score during his relief stint and completed 4-of-10 attempts for 79 yards.
Orton managed just 34 yards on 6-of-13 passing before being yanked at halftime.
Ironically, Tebow's season starting debut comes on a day when the Dolphins will be honoring Florida's 2009 national title squad prior to kickoff.
While the Broncos will be attempting to end a three-game losing streak, Miami has dropped eight in a row dating back to December of last year and is one of only three clubs yet to record a win this season.
The Dolphins have been especially unsuccessful on their home turf, having been dealt defeats in six straight and 11 of their last 12 tests at Sun Life Stadium.
Miami's latest loss took place on the road this past Monday, a 24-6 setback to the rival New York Jets. New quarterback Matt Moore, taking over in the aftermath of a season-ending shoulder injury sustained by Chad Henne in Week 4, hit on less than half (16-of-34) of his pass attempts and was intercepted twice in his initial start as a Dolphin.
Moore was signed by Miami early in training camp after the team couldn't work out a potential trade with the Broncos involving Orton, and is a familiar face to the Denver staff as well. The ex-Panther spent his first five NFL seasons and made 13 starts for Carolina from 2007-10, when Fox was then that franchise's head coach.
Miami has prevailed in 11 of 15 regular-season meetings with Denver, with the teams also playing to a 10-10 tie in 1971, and has won two straight and eight of the last nine non-playoff bouts between the clubs. The Dolphins posted a 26-17 road victory over the Broncos back in 2008 and a 34-10 triumph in Denver's most recent trip to Sun Life Stadium, which took place in 2005. The Broncos are 0-7 all-time in Miami and haven't bested the Dolphins since a 20-17 home decision in 2004.
The Broncos did win the only postseason test between the teams to date, however, pasting the Dolphins by a 38-3 count in Denver in the 1998 AFC Divisional Playoffs.
Fox went 0-2 against the Dolphins during his nine-year tenure as Carolina's head coach from 2002-10. Miami's Tony Sparano came out on top in his only prior encounter with the Broncos and is 1-0 head-to-head against Fox, with his Dolphins topping the Panthers in Charlotte during the 2009 season.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
While Tebow isn't as experienced or as polished a passer as Orton (979 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT), the young quarterback has shown the ability to move the offense during his brief ventures as a pro. The Broncos averaged a respectable 25 points over his three late-season starts in 2010 and got a needed boost from his insertion in the San Diego game, and Tebow's well-known skills as a scrambler add a dimension to the attack that the slow-footed Orton can't bring. The change under center won't stop Denver from being a run-based team, however, with resurgent veteran Willis McGahee (384 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 total TD) having stamped himself as the new feature back by amassing three 100- yard efforts in his last four games. The offseason pickup had a season-best 125 yards on just 16 carries against the Chargers, and the Broncos piled up 162 yards on the ground as a group. The receiving corps also underwent some major alterations over the bye week, with top target Brandon Lloyd traded to St. Louis on Monday and both Eddie Royal and promising 2010 first-round pick Demaryius Thomas set to return from injuries that have kept the pair sidelined for all or most of this year. Their absences have enabled second-year pro Eric Decker (22 receptions, 4 TD) to blossom in an increased role, with the 24-year- old currently leading the Broncos in catches and touchdowns.
Fox may have picked a pretty good spot to throw Tebow back into the fray, as the Dolphins presently stand 26th in total defense (390.8 ypg) and have surrendered the fourth-most passing yards in the league (284.0 ypg), while the team has encountered great difficulty establishing a reliable pass-rushing complement to standout outside linebacker Cameron Wake (11 tackles, 3 sacks). Miami has notched just eight sacks over the first five games, and Wake is the only member with a multiple number in that category this season. Forcing turnovers has been another major sore spot for the unit, as the Dolphins have produced only three takeaways to date and haven't had more than one in any single contest. Miami has been pretty sound at stopping the run, however, with end Randy Starks (13 tackles) and beefy nose tackle Paul Soliai (8 tackles) two quality anchors for a front seven that held the Jets' Shonn Greene to a modest 74 yards on 21 carries a week ago, and the defense allowed 296 total yards in an overall solid showing on Monday.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami will also be aiming to establish its running game on Sunday, and that's been one of the few areas the team has performed capably in. The Dolphins have a nice one-two backfield punch in physical rookie Daniel Thomas (249 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 1 total TD) and versatile veteran Reggie Bush (190 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 1 TD), with the pair combining for 118 yards on 25 carries against the Jets. They'll likely need to come up with another good day as well this week to help ease the burden on Moore (371 passing yards, 3 INT), who wasn't particularly sharp in his first start in place of Henne. The 27- year-old threw two costly interceptions, one of which was returned 100 yards for a momentum-shifting touchdown, against the Jets and often locked onto favorite target Brandon Marshall (28 receptions, 422 yards, 1 TD) during the game. Marshall still managed to register 109 yards on six grabs while facing one of the league's best secondaries, however, and the excitable wideout should be plenty motivated this week in a matchup with his former team. Marshall had three 100-catch seasons and made two Pro Bowls in a four-year run with the Broncos before being traded to Miami prior to last season following a dispute with then-head coach Josh McDaniels. Look for the Dolphins to employ Bush often as a receiver as well in an effort to help neutralize a strong Denver pass rush.
Moore had to face the NFL's leader in pass efficiency defense on Monday. Now he gets the league's worst in that category, as the Broncos have been routinely ripped apart by enemy quarterbacks all throughout this season. Opposing passers have made good on over 68 percent of their throws against an aging secondary headed up by 13th-year cornerback Champ Bailey (10 tackles) and 38-year-old safety Brian Dawkins (22 tackles, 3 PD), and the team has given up 10 touchdowns through the air already as well. Denver has also had its problems at times in run defense, as evidenced by the 206 rushing yards it permitted to San Diego two weeks back, though a pair of key stoppers -- weakside linebacker D.J. Williams (17 tackles, 1 sack) and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas (8 tackles) -- are now back at full strength after missing extensive time with injuries earlier in the year. The Broncos' strength has been pressuring the quarterback, with outstanding rookie linebacker Von Miller (18 tackles) having posted at least one sack in four straight games and agile end Elvis Dumervil -- the NFL's leader with 17 sacks in 2009 -- starting to round back into form after sitting out all of last year with a torn Achilles tendon.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. A big reason why Denver's 1-4 right now is that Orton wasn't getting it done, and although Tebow has proven he can be a catalyst, the captivating youngster remains an unfinished product who needs to play more consistently to give his team it's best chance on Sunday. Miami possibly could have won its Monday-night bout with an erratic Jets team had Moore not performed so poorly, and it'll be tough for the Dolphins to end their skid if he's not better this week.
Running the football. Both quarterbacks would clearly benefit from consistent ground games, especially with the Broncos just trading away their best receiver and the Dolphins lacking any real difference-makers at the position other than Marshall. Each of these teams has run the ball fairly well this year and been rather hit-or-miss at defending it, so whichever one is more effective in churning out the yards could have a distinct advantage.
Big plays on defense. Here's an aspect the Dolphins have severely lacked during their 0-5 beginning, having generated a mere three takeaways and eight sacks thus far. With a quarterback with three NFL starts to his credit on the other side, Miami has to take advantage of Tebow's inexperience and improve on those numbers. The Broncos possess a couple of potential game-changing pass rushers in Miller and Dumervil, both of whom are capable of forcing the error-prone Moore into mistakes.
Though neither of these teams can be termed as reliable, especially with each starting quarterbacks that don't have much of a track record to go upon this year, the Broncos do seem to hold a couple of advantages that could work in their favor come Sunday. The first is the additional rest and preparation time created by the bye week, whereas Miami will be on a tight schedule after playing on Monday, the other a defense that's displayed a bit more playmaking ability than the dreadful Dolphins. That could turn out to be a big factor, as Moore has shown in the past he can be a bit careless with the football. Though Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will likely appreciate the gate increase that will come from those packing the house to witness Tebow, the Florida Gator fans may be the ones with the most to celebrate during and afterward.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 24, Dolphins 16