DENVER -- In 11 seasons, Patriots QB Tom Brady has orchestrated 31 game-winning drives. He has the best winning percentage (.772) of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era with at least 100 starts. Last year, he threw only four interceptions on 492 pass attempts.
The clutch drives? The winning? The lack of turnovers? Brady has been doing it for more than a decade.
So while the most polarizing aspect of Sunday's game will center on Broncos QB Tim Tebow's own recent success in those same areas, Denver's biggest task is the same as it has been for countless other teams: It's all about stopping Brady.
"You've got to find ways to pressure Tom Brady," Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Thursday. "He's the guy that drives that offense. They've got a lot of great players. But he's really the one centerpiece that's been right there with them throughout their success. He's the guy we have to find ways to affect."
Strictly talking football -- setting aside every off-the-field debate about Tebow for just a few brief moments -- there's a good chance Tebow will have the opportunity to score more points than usual Sunday. The Patriots' defense is giving up more yards per game (416) than any team in the NFL, and New England's secondary is borderline terrible.
But if Tebow is going to have a chance, it will once again be up to the Broncos' defense -- a game-changing unit that has thrived on big plays. It has been Allen's philosophy all along, to bend but not break, to succeed by forcing sacks and turnovers.
"With a team like this, you know they're going to make plays," rookie linebacker Von Miller said. "You can't shut them out. We just need to stick around. We need to keep fighting, take it one play at a time, just like we've been doing the whole season."
Miller is right. The Broncos' defensive game plan under Allen has focused on finding ways to get the ball back for the offense without giving up points, whether that entails giving up a surplus of yards or not.
"You don't want to give up a bunch of yards, but at the end of the day, what we're trying to do is get the ball back for our offense," Allen said. "If you told me we could get three takeaways, give up 500 yards and win the game because we didn't give up a lot of points, I'd take that every time."
Allen's work with the Broncos this season should soon earn him attention as a head-coaching candidate. And Miller's work in his first year easily should earn him the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Also consider the impact players like Champ Bailey and Elvis Dumervil have had, and it's no wonder Tebow is often in the position to win games at the end.
But here's where this game could become truly epic: Miller and Dumervil have combined for 19 sacks. The Patriots, meanwhile, have given up only 22 this season, tied for fifth fewest in the league. It's going to be critical for the Broncos to penetrate New England's solid front, knowing the only way to limit the Pats' point total will be getting to Brady.
This isn't much different than any other plan against the Patriots -- except the Broncos' low-scoring output in the first three quarters of games will make the challenge that much more critical. While Tebow has helped by not throwing interceptions, Allen's defense generally has been ferocious when it comes to applying quarterback pressure to force bad decisions. And thus, turnovers.
This will be the first major test of the Tebow Era for the Broncos' defense. It will be the opportunity for the group to prove it is a playoff unit.
|The first issue of NFL Magazine, which features Tim Tebow on the cover, hits newsstands Tuesday. Want to subscribe? Click here. (Special to NFL.com)|
"Obviously, New England is a team that's been in the playoffs for the last decade," Dumervil said. "They're the team that's been in the playoffs. So we want to make sure we establish ourselves. This is a good challenge for us."
For everything Tebow has done this season, Brady has already established himself in each of those areas. Two clutch quarterbacks. Two winners. Two players who simply want the opportunity to be in a situation in the fourth quarter to win the game for their teams.
But if it's going to happen for Tebow, it's going to require a defensive performance from the 2011 Broncos like none other before this point. Can the Patriots stop Tebow late in the game? It will only matter if the Broncos stop Brady first.
"The only reason we go out there is to get the ball back for the offense," Allen said. "And that's what we try to do."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington