New England is 3-6 against Denver in the Bill Belichick era, including losses in their last three trips to Denver. The last time the Patriots beat the Broncos was a Week 9 Monday night win in 2003. That game, a 30-26 Patriots victory, is best remembered for an intentional safety and defensive stand that gave Tom Brady field position for a game-winning touchdown drive (bonus points if you can name Denver’s starting quarterback without looking it up).
However, the man (somewhat) under center for the Broncos this week carries a little more attention and plenty more controversy. Tim Tebow’s primary attribute seems to be his ability to inspire hyperbole among both fans and critics, but the Broncos are 7-1 with Tebow as the starter.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:
-- No player in the league inspires more debate than Tim Tebow. Here are the facts on Tebow as a passing quarterback. His 48.9 completion percentage ranks dead last among qualified quarterbacks since he became the starter in Week 7. However, maybe the most important part of Tebow’s success so far has been his ability to limit mistakes. Tebow has thrown two interceptions this season, and his 94.0 pass attempts per interception ratio since Week 7 is the best in the league. Also, Tebow has been markedly more effective in the fourth quarter of games, thanks in no small part to the way defenses have treated him. Since Week 7, Broncos opponents have rushed five or more defenders on 40.0 percent of Tebow’s dropbacks in the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter and overtime, they’ve rushed five or more defenders on only 28.4 percent of his dropbacks. The change of 11.6 percent is the largest in the league, meaning that no team has seen a more drastic change in opponent defensive philosophy from the early parts of the game to crunch time. Since the Jets were burned on a seven-man blitz for the game-winning scramble on a Thursday night in Week 11, teams have sent extra pressure after Tebow in the fourth quarter at almost half the rate as they had before (37.0 percent before to 18.6 percent after). Defenses that can effectively play aggressively in the fourth quarter will solve the Tebow riddle, as his numbers are far worse against extra pressure.
-- Tebow has six game-winning drives in his first 11 career starts, the most of any quarterback since the merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. However, the reason Tebow and the Broncos offense have been in the position to make those comebacks has been the improved play of the Denver defense. The Broncos allowed 28 points per game through the first five games of the season, but have allowed only 20.3 points per game in the eight games since. While Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins pace the secondary, the pass-rushing duo of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller have made opposing quarterbacks very uncomfortable. Dumervil (7.5 sacks) and Miller (11.5 sacks) are one of three sets of teammates in the top 20 in sacks, and Denver’s 25 sacks since Week 7 are the second-most in the league. The Patriots are no strangers to accomplished pass rushers. They’ve faced Kerrigan/Orakpo, Freeney/Mathis, Cole/Babin and Tamba Hali in the last four weeks, and Brady has been sacked only six times in those four games. Continuing that effective play is a must on Sunday.
-- No fourth-quarter lead is safe against the Broncos. As a team, the Broncos have simply outplayed opponents in the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, starting with the quarterback. Tebow’s 96.3 Total QBR in the fourth quarter is the best in the league, but it’s more than just Tebow. The Broncos haven’t allowed a touchdown on the ground or through air in that time frame, and their 13.1 Total QBR allowed is second in the NFL. The Broncos are only the second team in history to win four straight games when trailing in the fourth quarter (2009 Colts). A big part of that has been the play of kicker Matt Prater. Prater has hit all seven field goal attempts either to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter or overtime, with three of the kicks from at least 51 yards.