NFL Preview - New England (10-3) at Denver (8-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There's a story, and then there's a STORY. There's a win. And then there's a WIN.
Suffice to say, if Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos are able to defeat the visiting New England Patriots Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, what's already been a snowstorm of media coverage surrounding the polarizing second-year quarterback will ramp up to a full-fledged blizzard.
The Broncos enter with seven wins in eight games since head coach John Fox went with Tebow over the since-departed Kyle Orton, who'd begun with one win in five starts.
A win against the Patriots would edge Denver ever closer to an unlikely title in the AFC West, which it leads by a game over Oakland and two over San Diego -- both of whom it split a season series with.
Meanwhile, the Patriots hold a two-game bulge over the second-place New York Jets in the AFC East and can clinch the division for the ninth time in 11 years with a victory, having swept two 2011 games with the Jets by a combined 67-37. A New York loss to Philadelphia this weekend would also allow New England to seize the crown.
A 34-27 triumph last week at Washington gave New England 10 wins for the ninth consecutive season, joining the San Francisco 49ers (1983-1998, 16 seasons) and Indianapolis Colts (2002-2010, nine seasons) as the only franchises to produce that level of consistency.
But even in their best seasons, the Patriots have struggled to match the frenzy prompted by Tebow, a controversial 2010 first-round draft choice championed by since-fired head coach Josh McDaniels but widely dismissed as a non-traditional novelty before the recent streak.
Denver has won his seven starts this season by a combined 37 points, while its one loss since he took over -- at home to Detroit on Oct. 30 -- was by 35 points (45-10).
"He's great for the NFL, the kind of young man he is and the values he represents," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said of Tebow. "I think it's terrific. We just want to bring him down to earth this weekend. I hope we can sort of rain on the parade a little bit."
Chicago had a 10-0 lead on the Broncos when it punted with less than five minutes remaining last week. But Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown with 2:08 left and Denver later tied the game on a 59-yard field goal by Matt Prater to force overtime.
Prater returned in the extra session to hit a decisive 51-yarder. It was the fourth straight game in which the Broncos won after trailing in the final two minutes.
"If you believe, then unbelievable things can sometimes be possible," Tebow said.
The repeated drama, while enjoyable, has still been a little difficult for Fox.
"I don't know if they just kind of wait until they think, 'Oh, man, we might lose this game,' and start playing," he said. "It's aging me quickly."
New England quarterback Tom Brady, meanwhile, is just 1-6 against the Broncos for his career and the Patriots are 2-15 at Denver since 1969.
This season, Brady and Co. have scored at least 30 points in nine of 12 games, taking the heat off a makeshift defense that's seen wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater playing safety and has allowed more than 430 yards for three straight weeks.
"You kind of don't want to give up those yards in the first place," Patriots safety James Ihedigbo said. "But at the same time, we're going to bow our necks once we get down there and say, 'Hey, they're not getting in the end zone.'"
The Broncos average an NFL-best 156.2 rushing yards but are second-to-last through the air. Veteran running back Willis McGahee is 80 yards from his first 1,000-yard season since 2007. By contrast, New England is dead last in the league against the pass, but 13th against the run.
"It definitely has a Wildcat option element to it, no question about it," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Denver's run-based offense. "But they also run a lot of plays that I think we would say are conventional plays. They do both and that's part of the problem. You don't know when you're going to get one thing or get another."
Denver owns a 25-16 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England and has won five of the last seven matchups in the set, the most recent a 20-17 overtime victory at Sports Authority Field in 2009. Including playoffs, the loss was the Patriots' third straight and 15th in its last 17 outings in Denver, with the team's last road ousting of the Broncos a 30-26 decision in 2003, New England did rout Denver by a 41-7 score in a 2008 meeting at Gillette Stadium.
The Broncos have won both of their two previous postseason clashes with the Patriots as well, scoring a 27-13 verdict in Denver in a 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff and a 22-17 triumph in a 1986 Divisional Round encounter at Mile High Stadium.
Belichick is just 3-10 in his head coaching career against Denver, which includes an 0-4 mark while at the helm of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95. Fox is 1-2 against both the Patriots and Belichick, with all three of those games coming during his tenure with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10. One of the defeats was a 32-29 setback to Belichick's New England squad by the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, held at Houston's Reliant Stadium to conclude the 2003 season.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots, who'll be aiming for a sixth straight game with 30 or more points, are steered by Brady (294 career TD), who surpassed Hall of Famer Warren Moon (291) for the sixth-most touchdown passes in NFL history by throwing three against Washington last week. The 2010 league MVP seeks a sixth straight game with a 100-plus rating as well. Running back BenJarvus Green- Ellis has 21 rush touchdowns since 2010, tied for third-most in the NFL, while wide receiver Wes Welker (100 receptions, 1339 yards) joined Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison as the only players to have four 100-catch seasons after making seven grabs for 86 yards last week. Welker has a career- best nine touchdown catches in 2011 and needs 10 just receiving yards to surpass a career-high of 1,348 set in 2009. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (1088 receiving yards) has a league-high 15 touchdown receptions, the most ever by a tight end in a single season, and needs 87 receiving yards to surpass Ben Coates (1,174) for most by a Patriots player at the position in a single season. Gronkowski tries for a seventh straight game with a touchdown catch as well on Sunday.
On defense, Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller (11.5 sacks) needs one sack to tie Leslie O'Neal (12 1/2 in 1986) and Simeon Rice (12 1/2 in 1996) for the third-most sacks by a rookie since 1982. End Elvis Dumervil aims for a seventh straight game with at least a half-sack on Sunday, while veteran cornerback Champ Bailey has two career interceptions against the Patriots including the postseason.
Statistically speaking, the Patriots on offense are third in scoring (30.5 ppg), second in both total yards (424.4 ypg) and passing (319.3 ypg) and 21st in rushing (105.1 ypg). On defense, the Broncos are 22nd in points allowed (23.2 ppg), 19th in yards allowed (357.1 ypg), 16th against the pass (232.9 ypg) and 21st against the run (124.2 ypg).
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Tebow is 7-1 as a starter in 2011 and has accounted for 12 touchdowns (10 passing, two rushing). He also has an AFC-best 111.0 fourth-quarter passer rating and has helped the Broncos to an NFL-best 156.2 rushing yards per game with his skills as a runner. McGahee (920 rushing yards) needs 80 rushing yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for fourth time in his career and has six 100-yard rushing games in 2011, tied for most in the NFL with Buffalo's Fred Jackson. Thomas has totaled 222 receiving yards on 11 catches and scored three touchdowns in his past two games, and shoots for a third straight week with a scoring catch. Fellow wideout Eddie Royal, who missed the Chicago game with a concussion, has 19 catches for 161 yards in two career games against New England.
For the Patriots on defense, linebacker Jerod Mayo has two interceptions in his past two games and end Andre Carter (10 sacks) has reached double-digit sacks for the fourth time in his career. Cornerback Kyle Arrington is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions in 2011.
By the numbers, the Broncos on offense are 21st in scoring (20.7 ppg), 23rd in total yards (317.1 ypg), 31st in passing (160.8 ypg) and first in rushing (156.2 ypg). The Patriots on defense are 14th in points allowed (21.1 ppg), dead last in both total yards allowed (416.0 ypg) and against the pass (308.7 ypg) and 13th against the run (107.3 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
For all the talk of Denver's defensive superiority, the Broncos actually give up more points (23.2 to 21.1) and rushing yards (124.2 to 107.3) per game than New England. And the Patriots' biggest statistical weakness -- defending the pass -- hardly plays to the strength of a team that's 31st in the league throwing the ball.
With Tebow's arm still viewed as a liability, the tempo of the game rests on the legs of the veteran McGahee, who's rejuvenated his career with his best rushing total since 2007. The more yards he churns out against New England's front seven, the less time Brady and the Patriots' offense will spend on the field and better the chance of the Broncos winning.
Only three of 12 foes have held the Patriots below 30 points in 2011, and none have done so since the first week of November. For the Broncos to accomplish the feat will likely mean prompting a mistake or two from Brady, who's shown signs of being human in throwing 11 interceptions in 13 games.
The Patriots have a string of wins over good teams like the Jets and Cowboys, as well as others against preseason favorites such as San Diego and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the Broncos edged a pair of common foes the past two weeks and took a 35-point home pasting against a potential postseason squad in Detroit prior to their current run. Considering this is still Brady against Tebow, it's likely to look a lot more like this game will be no contest. In fact, the true Tebow miracle this week will be keeping Denver within two scores.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Broncos 14
12/15 18:06:53 ET