Picking out some key areas

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
12:00
PM ET


A few key areas that figure to play a big part in tonight's playoff game for the Patriots:

1. Keeping Tebow in the pocket. This was an area the Patriots struggled early in the Dec. 18 meeting. When Broncos quarterback Tebow gets outside the edges of the defense, he can be dangerous, and that was one reason Bill Belichick had the team in full pads for Tuesday's practice. He wanted the team's run defense, specifically edge-setters like Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson, to get good work in this area. Ninkovich struggled to bring down Tebow early in the Dec. 18 meeting.

2. Pass protection for Brady. The Broncos' best hope of staying in the game, and possibly pulling the upset, is to get after Tom Brady and disrupt the rhythm of the passing game with that pressure. In turn, that puts the spotlight on Patriots pass-protectors. They've had some struggles in the playoffs in recent years. Another question in this area: How much will left guard Logan Mankins (questionable, knee) and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (questionable, back/foot) be able to provide?

3. In-game adjustments. The Patriots surrendered 167 rushing yards to the Broncos in the first quarter on Dec. 18. After diagnosing some of the issues, coaches drew up some adjustments on the sidelines and the defense settled in. Bill Belichick said this week that he expects a few wrinkles from the Broncos. Identifying them and adjusting -- both for the Patriots and Broncos -- figures to be key.

4. Tom Brady and turnovers. One long-held belief at this address has been if Tom Brady is the Patriots' biggest concern, things must be pretty good. That still holds true. At the same time, Brady's recent playoff performances haven't been up to his high standard; his interception on a screen pass last year against the Jets proving to be a game-turning play. Here is the money stat for the Patriots this season -- after losing to the Giants to drop to 5-3 on Nov. 6, they were even in turnover differential (15th in the NFL). Over the final eight games, all wins, they were plus-17 (finishing 3rd in the NFL).

5. Being alert on special teams. The Broncos enter with little to lose. They are heavy underdogs. Somewhat similar to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, who felt they had to "steal" a possession from Peyton Manning and the Colts and executed a successful onside kick at the start of the second half, the Patriots must stay alert for kicker Matt Prater in this area. He has had success with onside kicks this season. Overall, the often overlooked area of special teams can swing playoff games, just as it did for the underdog Saints in that Super Bowl. Also note that the Broncos have a new long snapper, with Lonie Paxton missing the game for personal reasons, which shouldn't be overlooked.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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