AFC West: Road to Indy

Video: What next for Patriots, Broncos?

January, 15, 2012
1/15/12
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AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson discuss where the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos go from here.
Tim TebowDavid Butler II/US PresswireTim Tebow's memorable run in the 2011 season ended with a 9-for-26 passing performance.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Denver Broncos lost two games by a score of 45-10 this season. They were two lopsided bookends in an unpredictable journey that ended Saturday night.

In between not looking anything like a playoff team during an Oct. 30 home loss to Detroit and a season-ending thumping at the hands of the much better New England Patriots, the Broncos reinvented themselves and became a team with hope for the future.

“It may be hard to see it now after an embarrassing loss,” Denver tight end Daniel Fells said in a quiet Denver locker room Saturday night, “but there is something there. ... We did something this year that was unexpected, and there is something good to look forward to in the future.”

That future very likely will include Tim Tebow.

In a season in which Tebow became a household name in non-sports-centric households and in which he became a sport's lightning rod like we’ve rarely seen before, the Broncos’ season ended with Tebow not being the story.

While Tebow, who was just 9-of-26 passing for 136 yards, didn’t do much to help his team, Saturday night’s game was not a Tebow type of game. The Denver Broncos became an unlikely playoff team this season because they played smart, hard football in all three phases of the game in their victories. It became evident early Saturday that the allure of Tebow would be quickly overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Patriots QB Tom Brady and the stunning dominance of second-year New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Tebowing became a national craze and a phrase used daily. On Saturday, though, the Broncos were sent packing because they were Bradyed and Gronked.

Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes, and his 363 passing yards were a team playoff record. Gronkowski had 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. TebowMania might be cute, and it might be legitimate in the fourth quarter (and overtime) of close games. But it wasn’t that type of party Saturday night.

Brady and company were bent on letting the rest of the NFL playoff field know they are tired of being considered a postseason antique. They’re hunting for their first Super Bowl victory in seven years, TebowMania be damned.

While Denver’s season ended in a fashion that usually would sting an organization, there wasn’t a sense of despair in the locker room. It seemed the players knew this was a season of progress and it was a success, everything considered.

When Denver introduced John Fox as its coach a year ago Friday, there was no way anyone could have imagined the Broncos would advance to the final eight and beat the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. This was a team that had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The rebuilding project seemed like it would take years.

That assessment didn’t change when Denver started the season 1-4 before inserting Tebow at quarterback.

“People wanted to close the book on the Broncos,” receiver Matthew Willis said. “But we kept fighting.”

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaIn his first season as Broncos coach, John Fox, left, adjusted his approach to Tim Tebow's talents.
It all changed after the home loss to Detroit when Fox adjusted his offense to Tebow’s skill set and used the option offense. The Broncos’ offense transformed through the season and adjusted on the fly.

Now, the ride is over and the Broncos must look toward the future.

Tebow said Saturday night that he must become more accurate and consistent, and he plans to soon start working on what will be his first full offseason as an NFL player. Legendary Denver quarterback John Elway, who is now the Broncos’ football leader, has said he plans to personally work with Tebow in the offseason, focusing on improving the youngster’s footwork.

Elway was in Denver’s locker room after the game and appeared satisfied with the season. He wasn’t ready to chat about the future and has yet to confirm the Broncos will ride with Tebow as their quarterback in 2012. Don’t be surprised, however, if the Broncos commit to Tebow soon.

That’s the direction the players want the team to take. Several Denver players said Saturday night that they believe Tebow will continue to make strides and he is the answer at quarterback.

“He’s our guy,” Denver rookie safety Rahim Moore said. “Our team jells around him. He is only going to get better.”

That could be said of the entire Denver roster. This is a work in progress. Brady and New England’s offense showed there is still much work to be done in Denver defensively. The Patriots compiled 509 yards of offense and took their foot off the gas in the second half after leading 35-7 at halftime.

Denver needs help on both sides of the ball. But there is no denying this is a well-coached team that tasted unexpected success in a season that might just be scratching the surface of TebowMania, if that’s even possible.


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at a classic playoff mismatch:

What it means: The Broncos’ season ended at 9-9. The Broncos were never in this game as New England was clearly out to show the rest of the playoff field that it means business. The upstart Broncos were nothing more than practice fodder for New England on Saturday night.

Huge gap: The Patriots led 35-7 at the half, and the Broncos could barely do anything on either side of the ball.

Denver still needs help: The Broncos made great strides on defense this season. They were 32nd in the NFL in most statistical categories in 2010. Yet, Denver became a solid unit this season under first-year head coach John Fox and first-year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. But on Saturday night, the Patriots showed Denver it still has work to do on that side of the ball.

Miller gets jumped: After he fought with two New England offensive linemen late in the game, Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller was hammered by several New England players. Expect Miller to get fined for his actions.

Bradyed and Gronked: We saw New England quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski at their finest. Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes. Gronkowski had 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. They connected at will. Denver had no answer.

Tebow can’t help: Denver quarterback Tim Tebow wasn’t the reason why Denver lost. He started the game well, but as the game got out of hand he got more desperate and couldn’t do much. In a season in which Tebow was memorable, he really didn’t stand out in the finale.

What’s next: The Broncos stagger into the offseason, but they have to feel great about their progress this season. No one would ever had thought the Broncos’ 2011 season would have ended in the divisional round of the playoffs when this team picked No. 2 in the draft.

Halftime: Patriots 35, Broncos 7

January, 14, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Random halftime thoughts:

The Broncos are being Brady'd and Gronk'd.

New England quarterback Tom Brady – perhaps a tad upset about being the second-most-talked-about quarterback in this game – is beating down the Denver defense. Brady has thrown five touchdown passes. The Patriots went up 28-7 with a 61-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch — then scored again on a Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski strike.

As they did in Denver four weeks ago, the New England tight ends are slicing up the Broncos defense. Gronkowski has eight catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Aaron Hernandez has two catches for 29 yards but he has three runs for 58 yards.

Denver’s defense is just not giving the Broncos a chance to stay in this game in a game the Patriots are dominating in the field-position battle.

Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is having a decent game. He lost one fumble, but he hasn’t been a major disappointment. Still, Denver just can’t keep drives going.

The Broncos are running the ball well, at least — 100 yards on 21 carries.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tim Tebow is about to play the in the coldest weather of his life.

He doesn’t seem bothered.

With more than two hours until game time -- in the Broncos’ AFC divisional playoff game at New England -- Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is on the Gillette Stadium field warming up. He is wearing a sleeveless shirt. The temperature is expected to drop in the low teens for the game. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

The Florida product has played in a couple of games in the 30s this season. He was wearing a similar shirt while warming up at Buffalo on Dec. 24. But it wasn’t nearly as cold as it Saturday night in Foxborough.

Countdown Live: Broncos-Patriots

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
6:00
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the rematch between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8 p.m. ET. See you there.

I arrived in the Boston area early Saturday morning and wanted to catch up on some news that occurred during my travels Friday:

lastname
Binn
Interesting move by Denver by signing David Binn. The longest-tenured San Diego Charger of all time is now a key figure in Denver’s playoff run. Binn will be the Broncos’ long-snapper Saturday night at New England. Binn played 17 seasons for the Chargers — but hasn’t seen the field since the first week of the 2010 season.

Binn replaces Lonie Paxton, who is out for an undisclosed personal reason. He missed the entire week of practice.

The pressure will be on Binn. Heavy underdogs, the Broncos can’t make many mistakes at New England. Binn is one of the most accomplished long-snappers in the history of the NFL, but he will be fighting the rust Saturday night.

Meanwhile, as expected, Denver receiver Eric Decker is out with a knee injury. Safety Brian Dawkins is doubtful with a neck injury.

Final Word: Broncos at Patriots

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
1:30
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Divisional Final Word: Saints-49ers | Broncos-Patriots | Texans-Ravens | Giants-Packers

Three nuggets of knowledge about the Denver Broncos-New England Patriots AFC divisional playoff game:

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireWill Tim Tebow play like he did against Pittsburgh or revert back to the last time he played New England?
Broncos have had success against Patriots: Yes, the Patriots beat the Broncos 26 days ago in Denver 41-23. However, the Broncos have had a lot of success against the Patriots in the recent past. New England is 4-6 (including the playoffs) against Denver in the Bill Belichick era. It’s New England’s worst record against any team in the NFL. The last time these teams met in the playoffs was six years ago to the day of Saturday’s meeting in the divisional round. Denver (in its last playoff win before the stunner over the Steelers) beat the Patriots 27-13. It was Belichick’s and New England quarterback Tom Brady's first postseason loss. Brady is 2-6 lifetime against Denver.

Playoff streaking the wrong way: The Patriots have lost two straight home playoff games. Before the road bump, which began in 2009, New England won 11 straight home playoff games. Something will give Saturday because Denver has lost three straight road playoff games. Denver is looking for its first road playoff win since the 1997 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh. Denver went on to win its first Super Bowl title that year. The Broncos, who are big underdogs for the second straight week, are facing some long odds. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that had to play on a Saturday after playing the previous Sunday are 4-14 since 1990.

Broncos need to be more consistent this time: The Broncos' offense started strong against New England in Week 15. It had a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter before the Broncos fumbled three times in their own territory in the quarter. New England turned the miscues into 13 direct points. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Denver averaged 10.9 yards per play against New England and it averaged just 4.6 yards per play in the final three quarters. Denver quarterback Tim Tebow was sacked four times in the final three quarters. Denver had 218 yards in the first quarter but managed just 175 yards for the rest of the game. The Broncos obviously need a more sustained effort Saturday.
Ben RoethlisbergerDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDenver's defense sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times in the Broncos' wild-card win.
The 2011 Denver Broncos will not be remembered for their defense.

Let’s face it, the lasting memory, regardless of how this unexpected Rocky Mountain joy ride ends, will be of quarterback Tim Tebow. The six-game winning streak, the four overtime wins, the incredible and the abrupt ending to the wild-card win over Pittsburgh on Sunday will all turn back to Tebow. He is the cover boy for these Broncos.

Yet, there is no way this upstart franchise would still be playing if it wasn’t for an improved, tough-minded defense. Tebow may be the face of the 2011 Denver Broncos, but the defense is the heart.

If the Broncos have any chance of beating the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff round Saturday, their defense will have to continue to show its growth. New England coach Bill Belichick knows a thing about defense and he knows Denver’s unit is capable of being a factor against his high-powered offense.

“Defensively, they’re fast. They have an excellent pass rush,” Belichick said this week. “They’re athletic inside, their linebackers blitz … They cover well. They have a good defensive team.”

Four months ago, just as it was unexpected that Denver would be one of the final eight teams alive in the playoffs, it was as unexpected that the Denver defense would inspire such words from one of the most renowned defensive minds in the game.

In 2010, Denver was ranked last in nearly every statistical defensive category and it was a major reason why the Broncos went 4-12 and earned the No. 2 pick in the draft. Since he took over as Denver’s football leader, Broncos’ legendary quarterback John Elway immediately focused on the other side of the ball to begin his reclamation project.

Ending a 16-year streak, Elway hired a defensive-minded head coach in highly-respected John Fox after the Broncos were led by offensive minds Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels. Piggybacking on the Fox hire, Elway’s first draft pick was outside linebacker Von Miller, a player Elway hoped would become similar to Miller’s idol, Derrick Thomas, the man who sacked Elway more than any other defensive player ever.

The immense commitment to defense has worked out for Elway. Seventeen games into Fox’s tenure, the Broncos’ defense is considered above average. There is no doubt Fox and first-year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have influenced this unit, and it's being recognized around the league.

The Denver defense was on display in a big way in the 29-23 upset win over Pittsburgh in the wild-card round. The Broncos dominated the game and harassed Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with five sacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Roethlisberger completed just 6 of 13 passes for 74 yards and was intercepted when Denver blitzed five or more defenders. Led by the dynamic pass-rushing combination of Miller and veteran Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos had 41 sacks in the regular season, the most it has had since 2000.

“We saw some things we felt like we could do well,” said Denver defensive end Robert Ayers, who was extremely active against the Steelers. “It’s the playoffs. There is no time for holding back.”

Denver’s defense has been consistent throughout the season. When the Broncos entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, it was Denver's offense that was most culpable. In a 40-14 loss at Buffalo in Week 16, the Bills had two defensive touchdowns and a special teams score. The Denver defense allowed one touchdown in the game. In a 7-3 Week 17 loss to Kansas City, the Denver defense allowed just one big play.

In a 41-23 loss to visiting New England in Week 15, Denver's defense had some moments. But the Broncos didn’t lose the game on defense. It lost because the offense blew a 16-7 lead with three fumbles in its territory in the second quarter that resulted in 13 direct points for New England. The defense simply couldn’t overcome the turnovers.

Still, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Denver may not have the same success blitzing against Tom Brady as it did against Roethlisberger if last month’s game is any indication. Brady was 10-of-12, gaining with an average of 14.3 yards per play, against a five or more-man blitz. Against four or fewer pass-rushers, Brady was just 13 of 22 with an average of 6.8 yards per play.

Regardless of the pass-rush packages, Ayers said the key is containing tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The pair has torched defenses all season, and Hernandez was particularly dangerous against Denver last month. Hernandez had nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown against Denver, while Gronkowski added four catches for 53 yards. That’s massive production from tight end.

“Up front, we have to be able to get some pass rush and not let [our secondary] sit back there for long,” Ayers said. “I think Brady... he got a little bit comfortable a couple of times. We don’t want to let that happen. We don’t want to leave those guys on an island too long. … It’s going to take a complete team effort -- offense, defense, special teams -- and we know that.”

If the defense's effort all season has been any indication, the Broncos should feel comfortable their unit will come to play and continue to show it is no longer the weak link.
It is going to be extremely cold in Foxborough, Mass., during the Denver Broncos-New England Patriots AFC divisional playoff game Saturday night.

The forecast calls for nearly single-digit temperatures during the game, which kicks off at 8 p.m. ET. The low temperature for Saturday is currently expected to be nine degrees. However, it is supposed to be a clear night.

“It’s cold, but that’s part of the game,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. “You let the elements be what they are, and you just go out and play, try to stay warm as much as possible.”

Added New England coach Bill Belichick: “We’re ready for whatever we get, yeah. [We] had over 100 practices this year, they’ve all been in all different types of conditions, so whatever we get, and I hope we’ll be ready to play in.”

The game will be, by far, the coldest game Denver second-year quarterback Tim Tebow has ever play in. He played in a couple of games in 30-degree weather, but this will be another level of cold for the Florida product to deal with.
Denver long snapper Lonie Paxson missed his second straight day of practice because of what Denver coach John Fox described as a family matter.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family,” Fox told reporters in Denver. “He’ll be day to day just like all of our injuries.”

Guard Russ Hochstein would likely be the long snapper for Saturday night’s divisional playoff game at New England if Paxson can’t play, especially if the weather is bad.

Meanwhile, as expected, safety Brian Dawkins (neck) and receiver Eric Decker (knee) did not practice Thursday. It would be a surprise if either player plays Saturday night. Denver pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was limited for the second straight day with an ankle injury.

In other AFC West news:

Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel said on Sirius radio with Rich Gannon that he will not relinquish his defensive play-calling duties. That has been expected.

Chris Sprow thinks the 49ers’ Justin Smith would be a good fit in San Diego. In an Insider piece, Scouts Inc. thinks Oklahoma pass-rusher Ronnel Lewis could fit with the Chargers. San Diego is sure to try to add a pass-rusher this offseason.

Four Broncos to watch

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
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Four Broncos to watch Saturday night in a divisional playoff game at New England. Kickoff is 8 p.m. ET:

Brodrick Bunkley, defensive tackle: Bunkley had a terrific game against Pittsburgh in the wild-card round and he quietly had a solid season. He is going to have to disrupt the middle of the New England offensive line as the Broncos try to slow Tom Brady.

Quinton Carter, safety: Carter had a strong game against Pittsburgh. The rookie is really coming around. With New England focusing on tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (who had a huge game against Denver last month) so often, Carter is going to have to come up big again.

Willis McGahee, running back: McGahee shredded the Patriots in Week 15 before he was injured. McGahee has been a star for Denver this year as he had 1,199 yards on the ground. He fumbled twice and lost one that allowed the Steelers to tie the game and send it to overtime on Sunday. McGahee is going to have to play a strong, clean game Saturday night.

Eddie Royal, receiver/returner: With Eric Decker dealing with a knee injury, Royal is going to have to play a big role in this game. He caught a touchdown pass against Pittsburgh. With Demaryius Thomas -- who had four catches for 204 yards, including an 80-yard catch to win the game in overtime --likely getting extra attention from New England, Royal is going to have to make some plays.
Denver safety Brian Dawkins remained out of practice with a nagging neck injury.

It has been bothering him for several weeks. He did not play Sunday against Pittsburgh and it may be a long shot that he plays Saturday against New England.

Also, as expected, receiver Eric Decker did not practice. He reportedly has a knee strain. He is not expected to play. Denver long-snapper Lonie Paxton did not practice because of personal reasons.

Defensive end Elvis Dumervil was limited by an ankle injury. He is a defensive key, so if he is limited Saturday night, it could adversely affect the Broncos. Harassing New England quarterback Tom Brady is a must for Denver and Dumervil is an integral part of Denver’s pass rush.

Video: Best strategy for Broncos vs. Pats

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
11:47
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Herm Edwards discusses the best strategy for the Denver Broncos to beat the New England Patriots (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET).
One of the big storylines heading into Saturday’s divisional AFC playoff game between the Broncos and the Patriots is the fact that it will be Josh McDaniels’ first game back with the Patriots.

He was hired by New England on Sunday as an offensive assistant for the rest of the playoffs. He was the Patriots' offensive coordinator prior to becoming Denver’s head coach in 2009. He lasted just 28 games in Denver.

First-year Denver coach John Fox is not going to buy into the McDaniels angle. He downplayed the impact McDaniels can have in helping the Patriots prepare for his former players.

“When you do this for a living you have a pretty good idea of most of the players,” Fox told reporters Monday. “You [studied] them in college or coached them before and guys just move cities, that’s kind of what this league is … I mean, we’re going to go play Carolina (Fox was the Panthers’ coach from 2002-2010) next year. I don’t think that’s going to be a huge advantage for me. Plus, their team has changed and so has ours. I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

The Broncos advance to the New England game when quarterback Tim Tebow hit receiver Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard pass play on the first offensive play of overtime Sunday. McDaniels drafted both players in the first round in 2010. Still, Fox isn't going crazy with the storyline.

“I think a lot of people here drafted these players,” Fox said. “I don’t think one person did. I think that’s the case no matter who it is.”

Meanwhile, Fox gave some encouraging news regarding Denver receiver Eric Decker, Fox said Monday that he has a sprain and is day-to-day. Originally, the Broncos thought Decker had a significant knee injury. His chances of playing at New England may be iffy, but it appears he won’t have a long recovery.

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