Denver Broncos Take Magical Season to New England Patriots
Friday, January 13, 2012
by Aengus Moorehead
Media lightning rod Tim Tebow will look to pull off a second straight stunning upset when he leads the visiting Denver Broncos against Tom Brady and the Patriots on Saturday night. It will be a rematch of a Week 15 game in Denver, in which the Patriots erased an early deficit and rolled to a 41-23 victory – the first of three straight losses to close the regular season for the Broncos.
Denver's sudden return to prominence under veteran head coach John Fox and 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 Steelers in an action-packed 29-23 overtime thriller to advance in the tournament.
Thomas delivered a banner day, 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.
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.
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 Bill 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.
Time & Venue:
- 8:00 PM ET, Saturday, January 14, 2012. Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
NFL Football Odds: Patriots -14, O/U 50.5
Tebow rose from the ashes of two dreadful performances by throwing for a career-high 316 yards in the upset of the Steelers. Pittsburgh dared Tebow to beat him with his arm – and he did with four completions of at least 30 yards, including tosses of 51, 58 and 80 yards to Thomas.
RB Willis McGahee rushed for 70 yards on seven carries before he was hurt in the first meeting with New England. The Broncos gashed the Patriots for 252 yards on the ground, including 167 in the opening quarter, but three lost fumbles that forced them into catch-up mode. Leading WR Eric Decker is not expected to play due to a knee injury.
Despite an eight-game winning streak and last month’s comfortable victory at Denver, New England has plenty of reasons not to feel overconfident. The Patriots have lost their playoff opener – at home – in each of the past two seasons and developed a disturbing habit of falling behind early in their last three games of the regular season.
The one constant has been two-time MVP Brady, who threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns while getting picked off only 12 times. He has 19 TDs and two interceptions during the winning streak. The main concern is a defense that ranks 31st in the league, getting trampled for 411.1 yards per game.
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 Eddie 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 Danny 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.
The No. 1 seed is no guarantee of success in the AFC, compiling a 12-9 record since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990.
Brady is tied with Terry Bradshaw for the best postseason record (14-5) by a quarterback with at least 15 starts.
Ex-Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who drafted Tebow and Thomas, joined New England's staff this week.
New England is 2-5 SU in its last 7 games when playing at home against Denver
New England is 6-16 ATS in its last 22 games when playing Denver
New England is 1-5 ATS in its last 6 games when playing at home against Denver
Denver is 17-5 SU in its last 22 games when playing New England
The total has gone UNDER in 5 of Denver's last 7 games when playing on the road against New England
Denver is 1-3-1 ATS in its last 5 games
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 but the Broncos will make this caper interesting.
NFL Football Pick: Take points and Broncos.
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