Broncos vs. Patriots: Why Denver Is No Match for New England's Prolific Offense
Like most sequels, the substance of Saturday's game will struggle to match the fervent anticipation. The media are gladly feeding the beast, giving Tebow more bandwidth than any player in recent memory. But if fans generating the hype expect to tune in for another slice of near-divine drama, they will be disappointed.
Standing in Denver's way is a finely-tuned New England Patriots offense, fresh off a bye week and less than a month removed from a 41-23 blowout victory over the Broncos at Sports Authority Field.
Back then, Tebow Time was rendered meaningless by Tom Brady and a string of turnovers, creating an impregnable 18-point fourth quarter lead. Denver threw the kitchen sink at New England in the first quarter, rushing for 167 yards before a series of coaching adjustments turned the tide decisively in New England's favor.
Clearly, neither team will expect to go into Gillette Stadium with the same gameplan and win. Both John Fox and Bill Belichick will unveil a new page or two from the playbook, without getting away from what makes their teams successful.
Will the Patriots cover the 13.5 spread?
But whatever wrinkles we see on either side of the ball, the simple truth remains: Denver cannot live with New England's offense. Let me explain why.
Denver's Secondary Matches Up Poorly
Broncos cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman had no answer to Aaron Hernandez in Week 15, giving up 129 yards and a score.
By matching up on the outsides, they were well positioned to handle the more conventional threat from a Z receiver like Chad Ochocinco or Deion Branch, or over the slot in double coverage on Wes Welker.
But the real focus of the Patriots' offense—the tight end position that Rob Gronkowski occupies, and the split end from where Hernandez springs into action—utilizes the center of the field, up the seam and on short crossing routes. It is here that Bailey and Goodman showed their limitations, getting torched for a combined 13 catches and 182 yards by the Pats' tight end tandem.
One advantage the Broncos hold is the strength of their pass-rush through Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, and it was this threat that kept Gronkowski on in-line blocking assignments last time round.
Regardless, Denver will be forced to pick their poison again. Do they double Welker, leaving Hernandez to roam the middle? Or do they try to wrestle with the bigger-bodied Hernandez, allowing Welker the freedom to pick up huge yards after the catch on screens and slants?
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In summary, the Patriots passing game poses too many questions for a limited secondary to contain for a full 60 minutes. Brady will score touchdowns, and if recent evidence is anything to go by, 35 points is a fair projection.
Tebow Can't Keep Pace With Brady
Even more compelling than the Brady argument, is the notion that the Broncos can't score enough points to hang tough with a potent offense. Only twice have they exceeded 30 points this season, on the road at Oakland and Minnesota, and both of those wins were the product of multiple turnovers from Carson Palmer and Christian Ponder, among other factors.
For all Tebow's heroics, he remains an inaccurate quarterback, completing just 48% of his passes in the Wild Card round against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Mike Tomlin's unusually stubborn game-plan.
Belichick knows that he is working with the least talented secondary he has ever assembled in New England, but the message this week will have been to prevent the big play—even if it means soft zone coverage and big cushions for Demaryius Thomas to operate within.
Tebow won't face many Cover-1 or Cover-0 looks on Saturday. Instead he'll be encouraged to complete short and intermediate passes from the pocket, testing his accuracy and vision. And with one receiver down in the form of Eric Decker, Tebow might find it a challenge to take what the Patriots offer him.
If the running game struggles to move the chains as it did for three quarters of their last encounter, the Broncos will suffer too many three-and-outs to remain competitive.
The Patriots Can Run The Ball Again
An rarely-mentioned Patriots storyline heading into this weekend has been the recent form of rookie third-round running back Stevan Ridley.
Back in Weeks 13 and 14, a mini-crisis developed in the New England offense. For all its aerial firepower, clock management was a major issue, with no running back able to establish a rhythm and maintain possession with a lead in hand.
A toe injury to BenJarvus Green-Ellis opened the door for a larger role for Ridley, and the former LSU tailback has grasped the opportunity with both hands.
The Patriots will never revert to a run-first style for the remainder of Brady's career, but in Ridley it appears they have discovered a stout, direct rusher that can complement the offense, and exploit the running lanes opened by Brady's spread attack.
Ridley has taken 39 hand-offs for 210 yards (5.38 average) in the past three games; decent numbers, but nothing extraordinary.
But the parallels with James Starks of the Green Bay Packers in last season's playoffs are easy to see. Starks jumped into a role vacated by the injured Ryan Grant to maintain balance within the pass-first system commanded by Aaron Rodgers, and as the mercury plummets, Ridley can offer Tom Brady the very same services that helped carry the Packers all the way to Super Bowl glory.
And if the running game can generate momentum for the Patriots, watch out for the play-action skills of Tom Brady, releasing Gronkowski up the seam for huge gains.
If Tebow can take better care of the football in Saturday's rematch, expect the Broncos to remain competitive for much of the game. But all signs point to the Patriots overcoming their recent playoff woes and taking their first steps towards their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons.
Patriots win the game, 35-21.
Follow Nick on Twitter @nickbutterworth
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