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NFL Preview - N.Y. Jets (5-4) at Denver (4-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Forget "Sports Authority Field" -- or the latest corporate- flavored moniker of the moment.
In just four weeks on the job as a signal-calling messiah in Denver, Tim Tebow has transformed the Broncos' home facility into his own private "Swamp at Mile High."
Waking up the echoes of his Heisman Trophy/national title-winning days at the University of Florida, the once-controversial draft choice has already performed what many consider the football miracle of 2011 -- laying his hands on a moribund orange-clad franchise and turning it into, gasp...a contender?
OK, OK...so he's only won three of four games as a starter heading into Denver's Thursday night Week 11 curtain-raiser with the visiting New York Jets. And it's just the AFC West, where any team outside Indianapolis is a three-game streak from first place.
Even with those allowances, the idea Tebow has charted at 75 percent is praise- worthy.
But even more so is the throwback way in which it's occurred.
As a starter in 2011, Tebow has completed 43 passes for 526 yards while running 41 times for 283 yards. Overall in two seasons, he's passed for 1,259 yards, run for 547 and combined the two for 20 touchdowns (12 passing, eight rushing) and an 81.8 passer rating.
The Broncos had 63 offensive plays in their most recent win, a 17-10 triumph at Kansas City last weekend, and ran the ball on 55 of them, with Tebow completing just two passes in eight attempts.
To reiterate...this game was in 2011, not 1941.
One of those completions was a 56-yard touchdown from Tebow to Eric Decker that sealed the game in the fourth quarter and made it all elementary to head coach John Fox, no matter how unorthodox the method.
"Hey, as long as you're moving the ball, possessing the ball, giving your defense some rest, it's all good," Fox said. "Run, pass, if they let you kick it down the field, I wouldn't mind doing that either. As long as you're moving the ball, that's the key."
The man assigned with stopping Tebow and Co. this week agrees.
"You can go back and when people ask me about him, I thought he was a great competitor and he is a winner, and that's what he's showing right now," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said of Tebow. "Are there prettier passers than him? Yeah. Absolutely. But again, [we] just [have to] try to find a way to beat him."
Meanwhile, in the midst of concocting a scheme to detour Tebow's crusade, Ryan's got distractions.
The oft-outspoken coach went contrite after New York's 37-16 loss to New England this past Sunday night, apologizing for an interaction with a fan in which he reportedly responded to a taunt with a curse.
"I obviously, you know, made a mistake," Ryan said. "I was full of emotion and just popped off, and obviously I know I represent the National Football League and I know I represent the Jets. I know it was a mistake and I apologize. This is who I am. I made a mistake."
The defeat was the first in four games for the Jets, who'd moved into a first- place tie atop the AFC East before again falling a game behind the Patriots and being dealt a sweep in the season series with their primary rival.
New York split two games with the Patriots last season, then won at Foxborough in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
Ironically, New England head coach Bill Belichick was also asked about a remark he was said to have made to his son while leaving the field Sunday, enthusiastically pointing out that his team had scored 37 points against the supposed -- according to Ryan, at least -- No. 1 defense in the NFL.
Ryan shrugged off his foe's alleged comments, with a jab of his own.
"It sounded like a hell of a story, though, didn't it?" he said. "It's something I'll bring up to him after we beat them in the playoffs again this year."
The Broncos hold a 16-15-1 edge in their overall regular-season series with the Jets and had won two straight games in the set prior to a narrow 24-20 loss at Sports Authority Field during Week 6 of last year, with New York scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just 1:13 to go. The victory was the Jets' first in Denver since 1999 and only the team's second in its last six stops at the Mile High City, which includes a 27-0 setback in 2005. Denver also ousted New York by a 34-17 score at the Meadowlands in 2008.
These teams have also squared off once in postseason play, with the Broncos claiming a 23-10 decision at Mile High Stadium in the 1998 AFC Championship.
Fox owns a 1-1 record against the Jets, with both of those games taking place during his nine-year tenure at the helm of the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10. Ryan won his only previous encounter with the Broncos in last year's meeting and is 1-0 against Fox as well, with his Jets topping Fox's Panthers in 2009.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
As polarizing as Tebow might be because of his role in a 1940's-style offense, New York quarterback Mark Sanchez has been equally enigmatic for his perceived inability to get enough out of a unit seemingly possessing more talent. The USC product has completed 56.7 percent of 298 passes for 2,081 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season, with holdovers Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller leading the team with 31 catches apiece. First-year Jet Plaxico Burress has emerged as a red-zone threat after a slow start and now has six touchdowns and 26 receptions after scoring once in last week's loss to New England. Rookie Jeremy Kerley rounds out the double-digit receivers with 17 catches for 184 yards, but is questionable for this game due to a knee injury. Big back Shonn Greene has been on-again, off-again while the Jets have tried to reintroduce their "ground and pound" mentality. He went for over 100 three weeks back against San Diego, but had just 61 yards against the Patriots last Sunday. Veteran backfield mate LaDainian Tomlinson climbed to fifth on the all-time yards from scrimmage list in the New England game, but injured a knee on the final play and is iffy for this week.
Defensively, rookie outside linebacker Von Miller has been a vocal supporter of the Broncos' ground game, because of the rest it gives his unit. Miller has 38 tackles and a team-high eight sacks so far in 2011. The back end of the defense is highlighted by 13th-year cornerback Champ Bailey, who had two interceptions and a forced fumbles against Kansas City along with two tackles that raised his season number to 20. In the mix up front, sixth-year tackle Brodrick Bunkley has 18 tackles in nine games.
Statistically, the Jets are 14th in the league in scoring offense (23.9 ppg), 23rd in total yards (314.1 ypg), 20th in passing yards (216.0 ypg) and 24th in rushing yards (98.1 ypg). The Broncos are 29th in scoring defense (26.0 ppg), 18th in total yards allowed (360.7 ypg), 20th against the pass (243.1 ypg) and 16th against the run (117.6 ypg).
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
While Tebow is the primary ball-handler in the backfield, it's not as if the Broncos are entirely without weapons. Veteran running back Willis McGahee has gained 640 yards on 127 carries in eight games and will once again be considered the load-handler now that counterpart Knowshon Moreno is gone for the season with a knee injury suffered in last week's win. McGahee gained just 17 yards on four carries last week, but had 163 on 20 rushes in Denver's Week 9 defeat of Oakland. Youngster Lance Ball stepped in for the win against the Chiefs and gained a team-best 96 yards, providing Denver a viable combo even without Moreno. With all hands on deck, the team averages 158.1 rushing yards per week, good for second in the NFL, along with a quite-respectable per-carry clip of five yards apiece. In the air, Tebow has established some connection with the 24-year-old Decker, whom he hit for the decisive scoring pass last week. Decker has 34 catches for 462 yards in nine games, while veteran wide receiver Eddie Royal has 14 catches and tight end Daniel Fells has 15. Backup quarterback Kyle Orton completed 58.7 percent of his throws in five games, but was jettisoned in favor of Tebow after recording a 1-4 record. Tebow is completing passes at just a 44.8 percent rate, but is 3-1.
Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis would likely draw the matchup with Decker as the Broncos' No. 1 receiver, but could be drawn into more run coverage with Denver's ground-heavy scheme. Revis has 28 tackles, four interceptions and one touchdown this season. Inside linebacker David Harris is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker and has 48 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a touchdown. Up front, rookie end Muhammad Wilkerson has become a first-year force with 25 tackles and a sack.
By the numbers, the Denver offense is 20th in scoring (20.9 ppg), 22nd in total yards (318.1 ypg), second to last in passing (159.9 ypg) and the aforementioned second in rush yards (158.2 ypg). New York is 17th in scoring defense (22.2 ppg), eighth in total yards allowed (326.8 ypg), eighth against the pass (210.8 ypg) and a potentially-troublesome 15th against the run (116.0 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Because few of them have faced an option-read offensive scheme since college, extra pressure will be on the Jets' defense to contend with an attack that ground down the Chiefs last week, and the task could be made tougher by having less time to prepare for this game.
Coming off a short week and traveling to altitude isn't exactly an NFL scheduling gift for Ryan and his team, who are no doubt emotionally-drained after the big loss to their hated rivals. They'll have to put that game quickly behind on Thursday.
Tebow has won games against foes with a myriad of holes, but the one time he faced a better-than-.500 team with an elite defense, he was sacked seven times by the Lions. This will be a similar barometer.
More than any of the previous nine, this game could serve as a catalyst for the Jets for the rest of 2011. Win it, and they stay no worse than a game out of first in the AFC East and squarely in the race for a Wild Card berth. Lose it, and they not only tumble toward the back of both those packs, but also begin hearing louder whispers that Ryan's multi-guarantee mojo is wearing off. On paper, it looks like a New York smothering, but Tebow and those factors ought to at least make it interesting.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 28, Broncos 17
11/15 17:00:04 ET