The unlikeliest of teams that remain in the hunt for this season's Lombardi Trophy continues its remarkable run Saturday at Gillette Stadium, though the Denver Broncos' participation in this weekend's AFC Divisional Playoff clash with the storied New England Patriots is just one of several juicy plot lines that have built up this fascinating and pivotal matchup.
Denver's sudden return to prominence under veteran head coach John Fox and young quarterback Tim Tebow has been the story of the 2011 campaign, and the surprising AFC West winners added another enthralling chapter to their tale in last Sunday's Wild Card Round. Behind career-defining performances from Tebow and second-year receiver Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos stunned defending conference champion Pittsburgh in an action-packed 29-23 overtime thriller to advance in the tournament.
Just one week after mustering a meager 60 yards on an off-the-mark 6-of-22 passing, Tebow shredded the NFL's top-ranked defense for an eye-opening 316 yards on just 10 completions and threw for two touchdowns, including an 80-yard strike to Thomas on the opening play of overtime. The former University of Florida legend's 125.6 quarterback rating for the game was the highest in postseason history for a franchise that once contained Hall of Famer John Elway under center.
"He showed that he's a quarterback in the NFL. Case closed," Broncos running back Willis McGahee said of Tebow. "They said he can't throw. They said we weren't going to be able to move the ball on [the Steelers]. We did that.
"I wonder what they're going to say [this] week."
Thomas delivered a banner day as well, burning the Steelers for 204 yards on a mere four catches to help justify the controversial selections of both he and Tebow by Fox predecessor Josh McDaniels in the first round of the 2010 draft.
McDaniels will be involved in this contest as well, albeit on the opposite side. The onetime Denver coaching prodigy was hired by the Patriots just last week to be the successor for outgoing offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, recently named the head coach at Penn State.
The 35-year-old McDaniels went 11-17 in a disastrous stint with the Broncos that ended less than two years in and spent the 2011 regular season as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator. This will be his second tour of duty in New England, having worked eight years as a Pats assistant from 2001-08 and orchestrating an offense that established an NFL record for points scored in 2007.
"He's a very experienced coach in the league; a good coach that we have a lot of background with," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "I think he can help us in a lot of different ways. I think he's an asset because of his knowledge, his work ethic and his familiarity with what we're doing.
McDaniels was on board the last time New England prevailed in a playoff game, a 21-12 home victory over San Diego in the 2007 AFC Championship. The Patriots have dropped three consecutive postseason tests since that outcome, including stinging setbacks to Baltimore and the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in each of the past two years.
New England earned the AFC's top playoff seed for the second year in a row after compiling a 13-3 record during the regular season, but was bounced by the rival Jets in the 2010 Divisional Round following a 14-2 composite mark.
"That was last year," Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch stated. "The game is totally different, the opponent is going to be totally different, this team is totally different."
Working in New England's favor is the team's 24-3 record over its last 27 outings at Gillette Stadium, as well as the 41-23 road triumph the Patriots posted over the Broncos in Denver back on Dec. 18.
On the flip side, the Broncos have gone 5-1 on the road since Tebow supplanted the since-departed Kyle Orton as the club's starting quarterback in mid- October.
Denver jumped out to an early 16-7 lead in its Week 15 meeting with the Pats before New England erupted for 27 straight points, 13 of which came off three Broncos' fumbles, to pull away.
The Patriots also overcame slow starts in their final two regular-season tilts to bring an eight-game winning streak into the playoffs. New England rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to down visiting Miami in Week 16 and spotted Buffalo a 21-0 advantage before scoring 49 unanswered points on Jan. 1.
The Broncos and Patriots have gone head-to-head twice previously in the postseason, with both games having taken place in Denver and won by the home team. Denver posted a 22-17 decision over New England at Mile High Stadium in a 1986 AFC Divisional Playoff, and bested the Pats by a 27-13 score at Sports Authority Field in the 2005 conference semifinals.
Denver also possesses a 25-17 lead in its regular-season series with New England and had prevailed in five of the last seven bouts between the clubs prior to the Patriots' above-noted result last month. The most recent meeting held at Gillette Stadium was no contest, however, with New England cruising to a 41-7 blowout during the 2008 season. The Broncos had come out on top in two straight trips to Foxborough that preceded that blowout loss, including a 17-7 verdict in 2006, and also dealt the Pats a 20-17 overtime defeat in Denver in a 2009 encounter.
Saturday's game also marks the second time that Belichick and Fox have faced off in the postseason, with the first coming in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Feb. 1, 2004. Belichick's Patriots topped Fox's Carolina Panthers by a 32-29 count that night, with then-New England kicker Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with four seconds left capping a thriller that saw three fourth-quarter lead changes and a total of 37 points scored in the final period.
Belichick is 3-1 overall against Fox over the course of his long coaching career, but owns just a 4-10 career record versus Denver that includes the 2005 playoff loss and an 0-4 mark while at the helm of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95. Fox is 1-3 all-time against the Patriots but sports a 6-3 postseason record over the course of his tenures with the Panthers and Broncos.
Belichick has amassed a 14-5 playoff record during his 12-year reign with the Patriots and is 15-6 in the postseason as a head coach. His 15 wins are one shy of matching Chuck Noll for fourth place on the NFL's all-time list.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver topped the NFL in rushing offense (164.5 ypg) and tied for the league lead in run attempts, and had little problem moving the football on the ground in last month's loss to the Patriots. The Broncos rolled up 252 rushing yards in that game, with McGahee (1199 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 5 total TD) gaining 70 on only seven carries despite being limited by a hamstring injury and understudy Lance Ball (402 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 2 total TD) producing a 32-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Tebow (1729 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT) did considerable damage with his legs as well, with the competitive quarterback nearly running for 100 yards while reaching the end zone twice, and his 660 rushing yards during the regular season were the second-most by a signal-caller in 2011. The 24-year-old lefty's arm was the story against the Steelers, however, with Tebow fooling a seasoned Pittsburgh defense with several well-executed play-action deep strikes that were instrumental to Denver's upset. Five of his 10 completions went for 30 yards or more, with Thomas (32 receptions, 4 TD) on the other end of most of those connections, and the physically-imposing wideout also made a big impact with a seven-catch, 116-yard effort against New England in Week 15. No. 2 receiver Eric Decker (44 receptions, 8 TD) is out for Saturday's game after spraining his left knee last weekend, but fill-in Eddie Royal (19 receptions, 1 TD) came through with a key 30-yard touchdown grab in the Wild Card win.
Though the Patriots gave up a ton of rushing yards in the earlier encounter between these teams, Belichick's highly-criticized defense did do a commendable job of adjusting to Denver's read-option scheme over the course of the contest. The Broncos ran for a whopping 167 yards in the opening quarter but were held to a more modest 85 the rest of the way, and New England was without two valued stoppers -- safety Patrick Chung (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (47 tackles) -- for that contest due to injuries. Both returned to the fold for the regular-season finale and will be counted on to assist outside linebacker Jerod Mayo (95 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and the tough tackle tandem of Pro Bowl honoree Vince Wilfork (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT) and Kyle Love (33 tackles, 3 sacks) in attempting to contain the Broncos' unconventional offense. The Pats won't have their best pass rusher, however, with veteran end Andre Carter (52 tackles, 10 sacks) sustaining a season-ending quadriceps injury in the first game against Denver, but counterpart Mark Anderson (29 tackles, 10 sacks) recorded a pair of takedowns of Tebow in last month's win and the versatile Rob Ninkovich (74 tackles, 2 INT) tallied 6 1/2 sacks for the year while alternating between linebacker and a down lineman. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (88 tackles, 7 INT, 13 PD) is the top cover man in a secondary that's surrendered the second-most passing yards in the league (293.9 ypg) this season, but has helped the team garner a noteworthy 23 interceptions.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Whereas Denver's offensive game plan is to run the ball with authority and control the clock, the Patriots are capable of scoring at will behind one of the NFL's most proficient aerial attacks. New England put up 31 or more points on all but one occasion during its eight-game tear to close out the regular season, while its 65.3 touchdown percentage in the red zone was second-best in the league. Despite that pass-oriented approach, the Pats committed an AFC-low 17 turnovers, a further testament to the excellence of star quarterback Tom Brady (5235 passing yards, 39 TD, 12 INT). The two-time league MVP turned in yet another brilliant campaign as the director of New England's second-ranked pass offense (317.8 ypg), with a crisp 320-yard, two-touchdown display against the Broncos in Week 15 one of the highlights, and his 14-5 career playoff record is tied with Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw for the best winning percentage in postseason history. Brady doesn't lack for quality targets either, with prolific slot receiver Wes Welker (122 receptions, 1569 yards, 9 TD) finishing atop the NFL in catches and the pairing of second-year standouts Rob Gronkowski (90 receptions, 1327 yards, 17 TD) and Aaron Hernandez (79 receptions, 7 TD) without equal when it comes to tight end duos. Hernandez was a huge factor in last month's victory over Denver, hauling in a career-best nine Brady passes for 129 yards and a score, while the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski's presence was a main reason why New England netted a league-best 47 red-zone touchdowns. The Patriots were also effective churning out yards on the ground in their initial matchup with the Broncos, with rookie running back Stevan Ridley (441 rushing yards, 1 TD) and third-down specialist Danny Woodhead (351 rushing yards, 1 TD, 18 receptions) combining for 105 rushing yards on only 18 attempts.
Denver's defensive expertise lies in its ability to pressure the passer, with 2011 first-round pick Von Miller (64 tackles, 11.5 sacks) becoming an instant force from his hybrid linebacker/end position and proven edge rusher Elvis Dumervil (42 tackles) racking up all 9 1/2 of his regular-season sack total over the final nine games before notching one more against the Steelers on Wild Card weekend. Fellow lineman Robert Ayers (39 tackles, 3 sacks) did his part as well by registering two of the Broncos' five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger last Sunday, though the group wasn't overly successful in getting heat on Brady in the first meeting. That'll need to change on Saturday to prevent the New England marksman from picking apart a secondary that placed just 28th in pass efficiency defense and had only nine interceptions prior to the playoffs, and the absence of the battle-tested Brian Dawkins due to a neck injury puts a heavy burden on the young safety combo of rookie Quinton Carter (56 tackles, 1 sack) and third-year pro David Bruton (18 tackles), who'll be spending much of the night attempting to guard Gronkowski and Hernandez. Slot corner Chris Harris (72 tackles, 1 INT), who's played very well as an undrafted rookie find, will likely also have a major role this week if Brady decides to avoid throwing in the direction of 11-time Pro Bowl corner Champ Bailey (39 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD).
If this becomes a game dictated by field position, the Broncos should be in good shape. Punter Britton Colquitt sent an AFC-high 33 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line in addition to averaging a solid 47.4 yards per boot during the regular season, while kicker Matt Prater sports one of the strongest legs in football and posted the highest percentage of touchbacks (68.1 percent) on kickoffs this year. The fifth-year pro also knocked home two high-pressure field goals beyond 50 yards in a crucial overtime win at Chicago late in the season, though his overall success rate of 76 percent (19-of-25) wasn't spectacular.
New England may be even stronger in the kicking game with the pairing of Zoltan Mesko and Stephen Gostkowski. The former finished third in the NFL with a 41.5 net punting average over the 16-game schedule while placing 24-of-57 tries within the 20-yard line, while the reliable Gostkowski went 28-of-33 on field goals -- including an impressive 10-of-13 from 40 yards or more -- during a 143-point campaign.
Both teams also have dangerous punt returners, with Denver's Royal topping the AFC with a 16.2 average and taking a punt back 85 yards for a touchdown in an important midseason victory at Oakland and the Patriots' Julian Edelman averaging 10.9 yards per return. He also came through with a special teams score this season, a 72-yard jaunt against Kansas City in November. Neither Woodhead (21.9 avg.) or the Broncos' Matt Willis (20.4 avg.) has been a real difference maker on kickoff returns, but New England's coverage units -- headlined by Pro Bowl special teams representative Matt Slater -- have been very sound.
Considering Tebow was able to have success throwing the ball on one of the league's premier defenses a week ago, going up against a New England unit that's been glaringly submissive all throughout this season should be no sweat, right? Don't count on it. The well-coached Patriots will learn from the Steelers' mistakes and aren't about to let Thomas have one-on-one matchups the talented young receiver can exploit, and the big plays that fueled Denver's first-round upset won't be nearly as prevalent even though New England will give up its share of yards. Stopping the opposition may be the Broncos' greatest concern this weekend, however, as there's little question that the Patriots have the more efficient and experienced of these two offenses. As the team that's also less likely to make the big mistake, New England seems to stand a pretty good chance of erasing its recent run of playoff misfortune.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 37, Broncos 24