The Denver Broncos shocked the football world with an overtime playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. Their reward? A trip to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Brady already has spearheaded one win against the Broncos this year, a 41-23 victory in Week 15 in Denver. Playing in Foxborough will be much tougher for the Broncos, especially this time of year, and it won't be made any easier by a short week of preparation and the loss of wideout Eric Decker, who sprained his knee in the win over the Steelers.
Does Denver's momentum erase all the questions about this team, or does the much-needed rest the Patriots got during their bye week set them up for a big game at home? A Pats win means the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Foxborough. A Broncos win turns the best story of the 2011 season into the stuff of legend.
Here are the three questions that have to be answered during this divisional matchup.
Can Tebow keep the magic alive?
No one watches the coaches' tape of the Broncos and thinks it's all about Tim Tebow. The defense is solid, running back Willis McGahee leads one of the league's top rushing attacks, and the receiving corps is littered with catch-and-run playmakers. There's no denying that there is some magic when Tebow is on the field, however. Against the Steelers, he created what one former NFL coach called a "conflict."
"Tim Tebow just created a major problem for defensive coordinators with the emergence of the passing game," the ex-coach said. "Playing 'zero' coverage to stop the run is now a bad idea."
Early in the Steelers game, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Mundy simultaneously tackled the running back behind the line of scrimmage. It was a great play by a great run defense, but it also revealed to the Broncos that their wide receivers were being single-covered with no safety help. Tebow got the green light to take a few shots down the field -- and you saw the result.
Tebow threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns, despite finishing with just 10 completions. The Patriots will look long and hard at that Steelers defense and make sure that they have at least one single high safety in coverage at all times.
Part of the Tebow magic last week was created by the dive option package, which on several occasions had Tebow keeping the ball and running right at James Harrison. The Steelers' All-Pro looked frozen at the line of scrimmage a number of times and lost containment on Tebow. The Patriots don't have any outside linebackers as good as Harrison, and they probably will be more aggressive in getting upfield quickly to restrict Tebow's options. The last time these teams met, Tebow led a rushing attack that finished with 252 yards and three touchdowns, even though New England tightened up its run defense in the second half.
Can the Patriots recover their postseason mojo?
Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings and will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. But New England hasn't won in the postseason since the 2007 AFC Championship Game, and he and his team have struggled in their past three playoff games. The Pats averaged 16 points in those games, and Brady threw five touchdowns to four interceptions, lost two fumbles and took 13 sacks. The sacks are troublesome and have been an issue in recent weeks. Brady has been sacked eight times in the past two games. Rest assured, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller will get after Brady.
The one factor in this year's offense that might trump their recent playoff woes is the play of Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who, along with Wes Welker, have become major weapons. Hernandez was the star in the first game between these teams when he caught 9 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Expect Brady to hit his regular-season home average of 318 passing yards.
Last week, the Broncos faced a gimpy quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and inside pressure calls were effective. They will not have that luxury this week; it is difficult to blitz Brady on a regular basis, with Welker requiring constant double-teams.
Which team is the most distracted?
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien accepted the job as Penn State's next head football coach, but he's pledged to remain with the Pats until their postseason run ends. However, he was on Penn State's campus this past weekend to meet and greet the student body and deal with recruiting matters. Charlie Weis had the same experience the year he went to Notre Dame, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Josh McDaniels is back in the fold with the Patriots as an offensive assistant and he knows a lot about Tebow and wideout Demaryius Thomas, which could help with the game plan.
The Broncos' distractions are significant. Tebow draws national attention wherever he goes, and last week's playoff win has only intensified Tebowmania. Every national media outlet is trying to get quality time with both Tebow and general manager John Elway. Elway wanted to see Tebow "pull the trigger" last week, and everyone wants to know if Tebow can cement his status as the future of the Denver Broncos. By the end of this week, the team will be anxious to get on a plane and fly to New England.
The Patriots will give up touchdowns and a lot of yards to the Broncos. But Brady, getting a second look at the Denver defense, will put up 30-plus points and win a close game. Patriots 31, Broncos 24.