New England is in a familiar position: Fighting for the AFC’s top playoff seed in December. Like New England, in the world of “if the playoffs started today,” the Denver Broncos would also host a playoff game, though without the benefit of a first-round bye.
With Tebow-mania reaching epic proportions on a daily (hourly?) basis, the Patriots have been supplanted as this game’s media darlings. Fine by me. I can’t stand New England. I take delight in their failures, however rare those may be. If you think the Tebow adulation has gotten out of hand, then you obviously have managed to avoid the sports media’s decade-long love affair with Tom Brady. Sure, Brady has won three Super Bowls, but we get it. He’s a good quarterback, and frankly its been nice to hear a different quarterback and team get the same fawning coverage that previously was only reserved for Brady upon him throwing “the most gorgeous 8-yard out anyone may ever see.” (Cris Collinsworth actually said something along those lines during a Sunday Night Football broadcast. Okay…)
But now the fashionable Brady, the not-so-fashionable (or engaging) Bill Belichick and company are packing up and headed to Denver for what’s become the – gasp! – most-talked-about matchup in the NFL this season. What about the flex battle? What about the 1,300 or so media credential requests the Broncos received this week, which is double the average? What about the Sports Illustrated feature on Tim Tebow? What about Skip Bayless flying across two-thirds of the country for ESPN First Take? What about? What about? What about?
Even with a 10-3 record, the 2011 Patriots aren’t as dominant or flashy as prior years, but they’re still good. Really good. New England’s defense ranks at or near the bottom in many key statistical categories, including yards surrendered. Still, the defense keeps opponents to 21 points a game – about ten fewer points than the offense averages.
“Porous” Defense + Prolific Offense = New England’s Winning Formula
Thanks to the comeback win against Chicago, the Broncos added some cushion to their AFC West lead should that foreign, odd-ball, unthinkable result happen: a loss. Not saying I want that to happen, but you know…it’s wise to think ahead.
The Big Question: How will Denver slow Rob Gronkowski? I could provide an unclever answer about bye weeks and porn stars, but I’ll refrain. Let’s stick with football: Gronkowski is having a career season. Not just his career – every other tight end past and present.
Gronkowski already holds the league record for touchdowns by a tight end in a single season at 15 – and he has another three regular season games to go. At 6’6” and 265 pounds, the Gronk is larger, quicker, and more explosive than your typical tight end.
The challenge is who defends Gronkowski, and it’s a challenge many defensive coordinators have grappled with unsuccessfully. Gronkowski provides a mismatch for undersized cornerbacks. His speed is a problem for slower linebackers. Honestly, all due credit to Gronkowski, but that’s the exact problem Shannon Sharpe created for so many years. The only difference is Gronkowski is on an offense that lives and dies with the passing game. Denver could assign Champ Bailey to Gronkowski, but then who covers risk Brady’s favorite receiver, Wes Welker?
We may very likely see Bailey on Gronkowski from time to time, but Champ is a true corner. He prefers the sideline to the slot, and likely wouldn’t be as effective constantly lining up across from a tight end. I expect Denver to use an able-bodied linebacker to counter the Gronkowski argument on Sunday. The most likely option is Wesley Woodyard. Don’t be surprised if we finally see Rahim Moore’s center-fielder safety abilities put to the test either.
Plotline That Could Be Crucial or Insignificant – How about the other receiving options for New England? Aaron Hernandez could be the alpha tight end for many teams, but his five TD receptions are dwarfed by Gronkowski’s 15. Welker continues to be Brady’s No. 1 receiver, though don’t overlook Deion Branch if he plays. (According to the latest injury report, he is questionable with a groin injury.) We’d all be dreaming to think or expect the Denver defense to fully blank the Patriot passing attack. Points will be scored, but the big question is how effective the Denver defense is in limiting those points.
Sure there will be a lot of eyes on Tebow, and the Broncos offense will need to move the ball and find the end zone much earlier than the fourth quarter against this opponent. In the end though, this game likely hinges on the Broncos’ defense: both the secondary’s ability to force Brady to hold the ball for more than 3 seconds, and the pass rush’s ability to get to Brady in 2.9 seconds.
Final Score: New England 27, Denver 17
Of course…it wouldn’t be the first time I was stunned by this Broncos team.
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