Broncos vs. Patriots: Why Home-Field Advantage Will Save New England

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Broncos vs. Patriots: Why Home-Field Advantage Will Save New England
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Be careful what you wish for.

After the dust settled on Demaryius Thomas' 80-yard touchdown catch in the Denver Broncos' 29-23 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the above thought began to settle in my mind.

On paper, Tim Tebow and the Broncos were a favorable opponent for the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. A 41-23 win for Bill Belichick's men at Sports Authority Field just over three weeks ago seemed to cement the opinion, too. Far better to face a team you've already beaten, than one that handled you with ease, right?

But what if conditions on the ground, even in such a short space of time, have changed? What if Tebow's second-ever 300-yard game repeats itself at Gillette Stadium? What if Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and Robert Ayers throw Tom Brady around like a rag doll and force turnovers?

Sure, the Steelers had their share of problems. Ben Roethlisberger was clearly hurt, and his protection was non-existent on key plays throughout. Ike Taylor had a day to forget. But we are talking about the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL, which Tebow reduced to rubble with a handful of long bombs.

Now take the Patriots, with all their pass coverage issues chopped, dissected, and even mocked by members of the media. Show me a fan that believes that Devin McCourty can rise to the occasion in the playoffs, and I'll show you 10 more that lost all their fingernails watching him flounder in the regular season.

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Then there's the small matter of a banged-up offensive line, which has conceded eight sacks and 12 quarterback hits in the last two games. And you can be sure that Brady hasn't forgotten the bone-jarring hit stuck on him by Dumervil last time round. The psychological effect can carry over into future games, even for ice-cold practitioners like Brady.

But even though the rematch figures to present the Patriots with a genuine challenge this coming Saturday, Tebow Time will expire on the FieldTurf of Gillette Stadium. Allow me to walk you through the reasons why.

 

Home-Field Advantage is Critical

It might not have counted for much in 2009 or 2010, but the Patriots have a clear advantage in hosting a home playoff game as the top seed in the AFC.

The Broncos are coming off an emotional overtime victory, onto a short week with a 1,800-mile journey to Boston. In terms of pure preparation time, the Patriots win hands down.

The bye week will have allowed weary bodies a rare chance to recover, and for players like Logan Mankins, Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes, it might be the difference between contributing in a key role and struggling to finish the game.

Will Tim Tebow keep it close (less than seven) second time around?

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With no game to play, Belichick will have used the time wisely, drawing up specific plans for all three possible opponents, ensuring the team hits the ground running in practice. Give the best coach and quarterback combination in the game an extra week of preparation, and the chances are they will take full advantage.

Away from the passion of the Mile High crowd, it remains to be seen if the Broncos can cope with an elite team on the road. Regular season victories in Oakland and San Diego were impressive, but facing the Patriots in Foxborough is a completely different proposition.

With Tom Brady tasting defeat at Gillette Stadium just three times since 2006, he has dealt with everything the league has to throw at him, and won. The crowd may lack the noise and intensity of the Superdome, CenturyLink Field or Arrowhead, but with the sting of recent playoff disappointments still fresh, the energy of the Boston faithful may spring a surprise on unsuspecting visitors.

 

Tebow Can't Keep Pace With Brady

New England has scored an average of 36 points per game on their eight-game winning streak. In that time, Denver has put up just under 19, with a best of 35 on the hapless Minnesota Vikings.

Unless Brady has a rare off day, the Broncos are likely to need 35 points against the Patriots to progress. To do so, Tebow needs touchdowns. Settling for field goals, or committing turnovers won't be enough against a team that can turn to Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker or Aaron Hernandez for an almost unstoppable wealth of receiving options.

If the Broncos continue to match up in man coverage, as they did for significant chunks of Sunday's game, they will play into the Patriots' hands. Brady can exploit one-on-one matchups as quickly as any quarterback in the game today, generating huge yards after the catch with pinpoint throws.  

Take nothing away from Tebow's performance against the Steelers. Targeting Ike Taylor in single coverage on a number of big plays showed skill and careful execution of a common-sense game plan. It may be tempting to run with a similar style against the Patriots' porous pass defense, but here's the catch: New England creates turnovers.

With 23 interceptions, tied for second in the league, the "bend, but don't break" defense has taken on a similar trait to its 2010 incarnation. Take enough shots, and they will find a way to pick you off.

And despite Tebow's heroics on Sunday, his accuracy remains a problem, completing 48 percent of his passes. His numbers only tell half the story, as ever, but the importance of ball security cannot be ignored. The Patriots are 103-4 since 2001 in games where they have won the turnover battle, and Sunday figures to be no different.

 

Mental Toughness

After conceding 167 yards in the first quarter against the Broncos, or going 17-0 down to the Dolphins, or 21-0 to the Bills, many teams would have folded. Digging a hole that big for yourself on a regular basis is suicidal, but the 2011 Patriots are made of sterner stuff than in recent years.

Matt Patricia and Bill O'Brien have earned their salaries this season, working with Belichick to make a host of in-game adjustments, and overcoming first quarter nightmares in numerous matchups.

Knowing that you have an explosive offense that can recover a deficit helps the team to stay calm in pressure situations. This was illustrated no better than in the Week 6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, on a two minute drive to seal the game-winning score to Aaron Hernandez.

In Denver, the Broncos threw everything they had at the Patriots early, jumping out to a 16-7 lead, before 27 unanswered points swung the pendulum decisively in New England's favor.

One thing's for sure; the Broncos would need to produce the game of their season to topple the Patriots second time around. But their opponents are in no mood to give up their golden opportunity without a 60-minute fight.

With home-field advantage and plenty of momentum heading into the playoffs, look for the Patriots to make a postseason statement to all those who doubt their credentials for a fourth Super Bowl ring in 11 seasons.

 

Follow Nick on Twitter @nickbutterworth

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