Back when I worked with Bill Belichick on the Browns, each year before the Indianapolis combine in late February we would make our annual trip down to Bloomington, Ind., and spend time talking to coach Bob Knight. First we would watch practice, then grab a bite to eat and listen to Knight talk all things team-related. It was an incredible learning experience and I remember each visit with vivid detail.
During one such lunch, Knight touched on the subject of media attention -- how it can help a team and really hurt a team. When a team is the underdog, the lack of media attention helps motivate the players, allowing the coach to capture their full attention. But as the favorite, the players begin to believe their positive press clippings and pay less attention to the coach's message. Knight mused about somehow keeping winning teams secluded, not allowing them to read or hear all the positive comments. Being an attention-grabbing team is a huge challenge for any coach.
This leads us to a divisional-round showdown Saturday night between the New England Patriots and the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos. When has Tom Brady not been the main story? Brady is a Hall of Fame player and a huge celebrity off the field, but even he has to take a backseat when Tebowmania comes to town. And with Tebow getting all the attention, something tells me that Brady will play his best.
The Patriots have lost two straight home playoff games on a field where Brady has a 69-12 overall regular-season record. Last season, the Pats were undefeated at home ... before losing to the New York Jets in the divisional round. Same story in 2009, when they posted a perfect home record during the regular season, only to lose to the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round at Gillette Stadium. Therefore, the pressure is not on Tebow and the Broncos -- it's squarely on Brady and the Patriots.
And I am sure Brady prefers the pressure -- most ultimate competitors do. Brady knows this Pats team is different than the past two. But this time, the Pats are not the attention-grabbers. That crown belongs to Tebow and the Broncos. And I am sure New England's coaching staff is selling the Tebow story to its players -- the constant attention he garners, regardless of his inconsistent play. Just last week, there were reports that Tebow would be pulled if he struggled in the wild-card game. Allegedly, backup Brady Quinn took half the reps at practice on Friday, so he'd be ready if the Broncos needed a better passing game. Those reports were inaccurate, as first reported by my colleague Jeff Darlington and later the CBS television crew that watched practice. And despite struggling in the first quarter, Tebow went on to enjoy his best passing game of the season. The week began with reports that Tebow might lose his job ... and ended with a mind-blowing Broncos triumph and new Twitter record. Amazing, right?
With the Tebow story running wild, this year's Patriots should be fully tuned in to their coach's message.
Another notable difference from last postseason for the Pats is the tight end situation. And I'm not talking about Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski, but rather the other tight end, Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was injured in last year's divisional-round defeat to the Jets. Although he did participate in the game, he was clearly not the same player. Now he's healthy and a huge matchup problem for any team in the tournament. His speed on tape is really explosive. If the Broncos try covering him with a safety -- like they did back in Week 15, when Hernandez had nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown -- he will make plays all over the field. If the Broncos decide to double him, then Gronkowski becomes the go-to guy. The Pats are not a good passing team outside the numbers, but their inside game is so deadly it compensates for the lack of speed on the perimeter.
Honestly, though, the ultimate difference in this game will be Brady. He has not forgotten the past two early exits. He wants to continue to prove to friend and foe alike that he is the best quarterback in the NFL, that he should be the most tweeted name in the world. And the only way to do that is to win on the big stage. Expect Brady at his best on Saturday night. I can't wait to watch it in person.
The First 15: Divisional Edition
1. Don't discount weather in this round of the playoffs. Sub-freezing temperatures and wind are great equalizers. It's supposed to be windy in New England on Saturday night and really cold in Green Bay on Sunday. Cold footballs are hard to kick and catch.
2. The 49ers have not said a word all week, allowing all the attention to revolve around Drew Brees, the Saints and their incredible passing game. Something tells me that Jim Harbaugh has all of his players' attention this week and they will play their best football of the season.
3. If the 49ers are able to get more than 14 third downs in the game, converting every third-and-less-than-3, they can keep the score in the 20s, which gives them a chance to win. The Niners must have an extensive call sheet for 3rd-and-short so they are not predictable later in the game. Ultimately, pace is critical for the 49ers in this game.
4. Time of possession is only important if two things occur: 1) A team must score touchdowns after keeping the ball a long time; and 2) their defense cannot allow any big plays. If the 49ers have the ball for nine minutes and score, and the Saints have it 1:30 and score, what advantage is gained in the time of possession battle?
5. The 49ers must pressure Brees with power from the inside, creating a wall and obstructing his view down the field. Brees is the best at sliding side-to-side and finding windows to throw. Even though he is short, he throws over the top like a 6-foot-3 guy and finds ways to see with his foot quickness and pocket awareness.
6. The Saints must play their best game on the offensive line. If they give Brees time to throw the ball, they'll be very difficult to beat. The specialty players garner all the attention for the Saints, but the key to winning is in their offensive line.
7. With the return of left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, the Packers match up much better to the Giants' defensive front. Green Bay must move the pocket and keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers from always being in one place. Nothing frustrates a defensive line more than a quarterback on the move.
8. The Giants averaged five yards per carry and gained over 440 yards in the Week 13 game against Green Bay, but they also had the ball six minutes less than the Packers. Thus, the three-point loss. The Giants must win the time-of-possession battle (just like the 49ers must do).
9. Take away the Aaron Rodgers runs and the Packers managed just 57 yards on 24 carries in the last meeting with New York. To slow down the Giants' rush, the Packers will have to do a much better job in their own run game.
10. Last time the Texans and Ravens played, the difference in the game was not Ray Rice, but rather quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco did not throw a touchdown pass, but he averaged more than nine yards per attempt and the Ravens eclipsed 400 yards of offense. He will need to have another great game for the Ravens to win.
11. The Texans have an excellent return game, and they'll need to make a big play in the kicking game to win. They could also use an extra possession or two. They must play from in front. Rookie starter T.J. Yates will struggle if he has to play from behind all game.
12. The Texans must get into a formation that can limit the blitz calls from the Ravens and help keep the game simple for Yates. They can accomplish this by going with three tight ends and one receiver, keeping the run game strong and reducing the fronts and coverages of the Ravens. The Texans are really good out of this set.
13. I don't expect the Patriots to take the same approach the Steelers took in defending Tebow. The Steelers treated the Broncos' offense like it was the Wildcat, not worrying about the throw. The Pats will force Tebow to throw the ball in front of them.
14. Expect to see more Stevan Ridley for the Pats and expect them to be able to run the ball more effectively against the nickel fronts of the Broncos. The Broncos are going to try to slow down this game and force Brady to call more runs.
15. I want to express my deepest condolences to Joe Philbin and his family for the loss of their son, Michael. No words could ever ease the pain of losing a child. I am sure there will be a moment of silence in honor of Michael before kickoff at Lambeau Field.
Enjoy the games -- this is the best weekend of the year.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi