Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Saturday's AFC divisional-round matchup against the Denver Broncos.
Mike: Part of what makes this game a bit different is that the teams just met Dec. 18. A lot of what we talked about then still applies in this breakdown, although there are some changes from that time. Bill Belichick said it's almost like facing an AFC East team later in the season.
Tedy: In a situation like this, sideline adjustments are going to be key. Defensively, I think Bill Belichick will come out with a similar plan, because it was the right plan in the first meeting, using defenses with double-edge pressure -- Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson coming off the edge to force pressure on Tim Tebow. What will have to be done, after the first series or two, is diagnosing what changes the Broncos have made and vice versa. Seeing what John Fox and Bill Belichick do with in-game adjustments is what to watch for.
Mike: Double-edge pressure was a big adjustment for the Patriots in that Dec. 18 game, after giving up 167 rushing yards to the Broncos in the first quarter. But now you look at how the Broncos threw the ball against the Steelers and ask the question: Could this Broncos' offense be evolving into more of a balanced attack?
Tedy: I don't know much it's evolved. When I look back on that Broncos-Steelers game, what Tebow saw from the Pittsburgh defense made it easy for him. Putting nine in the box with either a single high safety or no safety, the read is clean for him to throw to Demaryius Thomas deep or threaten down the field. The Patriots won't do that. You won't see nine in the box because I think they respect him as a passer. I think they'll have zone concepts or one safety deep most of the time.
Mike: Since you mentioned Tebow, let's start there. You had some strong feelings about him before the Dec. 18 meeting, noting his ability to lead fourth-quarter comebacks and how much you like him. You mentioned at the time that he "isn't a passer, he's more of a football player back there playing quarterback," and while some might view that as negative, I know you don't.
Tedy: The No. 1 thing that I think you have to do is acknowledge the success of Tebow and how well he is playing. I think the common misconception is that there is only one way to play quarterback in the National Football League. That is wrong. There is more than one way. It's rare that you get a Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. There are so many quarterbacks trying to be those guys and it's just not going to happen, and that's why their teams are struggling. The Broncos are saying, We don't have that and we're not going to force it, so let's let Tebow be Tebow and run the ball, take care of the football, and play that way. This is their guy and he's earned my respect that he's the best quarterback for them in the near future. I think he deserves, this offseason, to be the guy they build around in the near future.
Mike: Given that this was what some outside observers felt was the best possible matchup for the Patriots, do you think there could be any complacency from the players? It seemed like many felt it would be a victory of sorts to avoid the Steelers.
Tedy: I don't think the players see it that way. I think they truly respect Tebow. If they don't, they better. That's what happened with the Steelers and other teams that have played against the Broncos. It's about checking your arrogance at the door. I think that's the problem that a lot of teams have with Tebow -- they think he doesn't belong. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau putting nine men in the box and single coverage on the outside is like a slap in the face to Tebow. He's basically saying to him, We don't think you can beat us with your arm. So what does Tebow do? He beats you with his arm. As an opponent, I think the first thing you have to do is respect that he can beat you.
Dissecting the matchup
Mike: That leads us nicely into the specific matchup of the Tebow-led Broncos' offense against the up-and-down Patriots defense. For the Broncos, there are a few things that could look different from the Dec. 18 matchup. First, running back Willis McGahee looked strong early against the Patriots before missing large chunks of the action with a left hamstring injury. He isn't listed on the injury/participation report this week, so expect to see a lot of him. Also, receiver Eric Decker injured his knee in the AFC wild-card win over the Steelers. He's out after missing practice all week. And former Patriot Russ Hochstein has done what he was known for here, stepping in for injured right guard Chris Kuper and helping the offense not miss a beat.
Tedy: And on the Patriots' side, the Dec. 18 game was where they lost defensive end Andre Carter for the season and that could hurt them this time around. Carter gave them that flexibility to be multiple on a down-to-down basis -- 4-3 end or standing up in the 3-4. Yet the Patriots should have linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung back in the lineup. They had both missed seven games but returned for the regular-season finale against the Bills. With Spikes, look for them to send him up the middle in running situations. It's a "Mike-Blitz" call, when they have man coverage behind him and Spikes attacks that guard. They like to send him and make things simple for him now, because he's a beast going forward.
Mike: Spikes is one of the Patriots' best run-stuffing linebackers, a downhill-type player, so that style would seem to fit well in this matchup against a solid running attack like Denver's. As for Chung, he is their best safety, bringing a lot of energy to the back end.
Tedy: Yes, but one thing with Chung, sometimes he gets a little overaggressive. This is the playoffs. I know he's so excited to get his chance again. I mention this because you saw it Sunday against the Steelers: one of the best in the business, Troy Polamalu, biting when he shouldn't have taken the bait and getting caught out of position. I think that's good for Chung to look at and say, This is what I can't do. Still, when you get out there on the field, sometimes your emotions take over and you still want to make every single play. But this Broncos spread offense, this running attack, this play-action game from the Broncos, you can't make every play. Watch for Chung and the way he reads Tebow and attempts to make plays.
Mike: You know that Chung, who had the costly miscue on the fake punt in last year's playoff loss, will be at one of the safety spots. There is some question on who will be at the other, and it could be Devin McCourty, who moved from cornerback to safety in the regular-season finale.
Tedy: I don't like McCourty at safety. I don't think he's a safety. I know he said he's played it before, and in training camp you might experiment with it, but to me, he's still a Pro Bowl cornerback and I'd put him on Demaryius Thomas and leave him there. I didn't think McCourty looked great at safety against the Bills in the season finale. I just thought he looked uncomfortable.
Mike: One thing that stood out from speaking with Patriots players after the Dec. 18 game was how tough they found it was to tackle Tebow. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork talked about getting multiple players to the ball in this game, almost like a cavalry. We could also see some "spy" work in certain situations. In your career as a linebacker, you were called on to "spy" on athletic quarterback at times. How would you explain the way that works?
Tedy: What you do as a spy, you focus on the line of scrimmage. As a pass play progresses, it will back up a few yards, but you stay closer to the line, still keeping enough distance so you don't get caught in the traffic of the linemen. You wait for a quarterback to flush out to his left or his right, and you attack. With Tim Tebow, you almost would do it favoring the defensive right side, because that would discourage him from scrambling to his left, the side he favors.
Mike: That sounds good in theory, but as Bill Belichick often says, to do one thing you usually have to give something up.
Tedy: That's right. It takes away one of your players in coverage, and that's where it can hurt. That's a little bit of a conflict the Patriots will have in this game. And concepts are great, but if you can't get the job done when it's just you and Tebow, it doesn't matter. Rob Ninkovich had one of those moments in the last game. On Tebow's first rushing touchdown, he couldn't bring him down. These two teams have a good idea of what to expect. Players will be in position to make plays. Who's gonna make 'em?
Mike: One other thing that shouldn't be overlooked was the role of turnovers in the first meeting between the teams. The Patriots got the three second-quarter turnovers -- two on defense, one on special teams -- and turned them into 13 points. Those turnovers have been a huge factor in the team's eight-game winning streak. Consider that after the Nov. 6 loss to the Giants, the Patriots were tied for 15th in the NFL in turnover differential; they were even with 14 takeaways and 14 giveaways. They finished the year ranked third in the NFL in turnover differential -- plus-17 with 34 takeaways and 17 giveaways.
Tedy: As long as the Patriots keep producing those turnovers, they're going to be OK. This is a unit that gives up a lot of yards, but has come up with plays in the red area or produced those turnovers. That's been the formula this year and they have to hope that continues in the playoffs. It's a risky way to play defense, but that's who they are.
Mike: Offensively, the Patriots didn't have receiver Deion Branch for the Dec. 18 matchup (groin), and he's been managed carefully coming down the home stretch. One would think he plays in this game. And, of course, starting left guard Logan Mankins has been sidelined since spraining his MCL on Dec. 24 against the Dolphins. Mankins looks like he could be a game-time decision. The offensive line, as always, figures to be a key area.
Tedy: I'm sure the Patriots have watched the film closely, realizing how the Broncos got pressure on Tom Brady in that game. Quinton Carter, the safety, got a sack on a blitz. Then on the Elvis Dumervil big sack in the fourth quarter, which was probably the hardest Tom Brady has been hit all year, it was Carter coming up to the line of scrimmage and causing some confusion. It was Nate Solder at right tackle, and he didn't know if he should come down on Carter or stay on Dumervil. You saw right guard Brian Waters trying to pop out late and block Dumervil, but it was too late.
Mike: And when it comes to edge pressure, Dumervil and rookie Von Miller can cause havoc.
Tedy: Miller has had a great year. He is a very explosive player, a pure pass-rusher who has had some difficulties since injuring his thumb. He's been playing with a cast and you could tell at first he wasn't as effective, but it seems he is now still finding ways to contribute. That could be bad news for the Patriots.
Mike: One of the interesting questions for the Patriots is how they'll split up their running back workload. Rookie Stevan Ridley finished the season strong and looks like their most explosive back. He had 11 carries for 65 yards in the Dec. 18 game. Do the Patriots ride with Ridley? Or do they return to the more proven runner in BenJarvus Green-Ellis? We'll keep an eye on that.
Tedy: When you look back at one of the things that hurt the Broncos against the Patriots, it was tight end Aaron Hernandez and his ability after the catch. He finished with a team-high nine receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown. That's part of the challenge of any defense facing the Patriots: They have a lot of weapons. If you're going to devote more attention to Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, there are going to be opportunities for players like Hernandez.
Mike: When it comes to Gronkowski and Hernandez, I know you point to them as a main area that stands out between last year's Patriots team and this year's.
Tedy: Their development has been the biggest difference and it's an aspect that defenses have trouble dealing with. It reminds me a little bit of when I was playing and we'd prepare to face the Colts' offense and tight end Dallas Clark. We'd spend a lot of time preparing for him, jamming at the line of scrimmage, taking a defensive end to alter his path, anything to disrupt him. What we tried to do was take away the high-percentage throws in between the numbers, because those are the areas Clark owned. You think about that, and then thinking about the Patriots, they now have two of those type of guys. It's almost impossible to take that away from both of them. They've taken the two-tight-end set to a new level.
Coaching, special teams and predictions
Mike: There was a lot of talk this week about the presence of Josh McDaniels on the Patriots' staff and whether it gave the Patriots an unfair advantage. What are your thoughts on that?
Tedy: Look, Tom Brady threw for more than 5,000 yards without him, so I think they'd be fine without him. At the same time, Mike McCoy, who is the offensive coordinator in Denver, was also in that position when McDaniels was head coach. These two formulated a plan against the Patriots in 2009, so McDaniels is aware of the knowledge and thoughts McCoy had leading into that game. That can help. At the same time, is this all a coincidence that they play the Broncos? Absolutely.
Mike: Bill Belichick also said, point-blank, that nothing is changing when it comes to Bill O'Brien's coaching responsibilities. He's leading the offense. Any chance that situation could become a distraction?
Tedy: It would be more of a distraction if it was different circumstances. I'm sure everyone in that locker room is happy for Bill O'Brien. I think this is something that can add extra motivation for guys, about sending Billy out on the right note.
Mike: As part of the preparations leading into the Dec. 18 game, the Patriots used receiver Julian Edelman as the scout-team quarterback running the option (he was that type of quarterback at Kent State) and Ryan Mallett for the deep passing game. You mentioned Edelman is a player who has caught your eye lately, particularly on defense as a slot corner.
Tedy: I think Edelman needs to play more. He's almost like a smaller Rodney Harrison out there. He talks trash out there. He's always tackling aggressively. When he hits you at the knees, he lets you know about it. Even on special teams, when he's tackled on a punt return and it's a good play by the other team, he goes into the face of the player and has something to say. That's his mentality. It's almost a defensive mentality. Those are the type of guys you want on the field.
Mike: Before getting to our predictions, it was notable to me that when Bill Belichick detailed the Broncos at the start of the week, he started with their specialists. Kicker Matt Prater is excellent and punter Britton Colquitt had a solid year, so they can win a field-position game, even when playing away from Mile High. One area of concern for the Broncos is that snapper Lonie Paxton is out because of a personal issue. They might have to sign a free agent.
Tedy: Prater has been a real weapon for them this year. He's clutch.
Mike: Let's get to our predictions now. This is asking a lot of the Broncos to turn around after an emotional win and play on the road six days later. I combine that with the feeling that the mentally tough Patriots are ready to make a decisive statement and believe this will be the night that Gillette Stadium rocks and a three-game playoff losing streak is snapped. The Patriots might have a shaky defense at times, but the offense is just too explosive. Sure, Tom Brady's recent playoff performances haven't been up to his usual standard, but I don't see Denver being able to hold him down long enough to hang close in the end. Patriots 35, Broncos 17.
Tedy: Quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers don't grow on trees. If you've got one of these guys, congratulations. If not, good luck finding one. Having said that, what's so intriguing about the quarterback position is that there is more than one way to play it. And more than one way to win football games. Denver is for real and so is Tim Tebow. Is it possible that they beat the Patriots? Yes. Do I think it will happen? No. The Patriots have been "one and done" the last two years. That trend stops Saturday. The Patriots don't have to look far for a reminder of who they are playing for this season: the patch on their jerseys that honors Myra Kraft, the late wife of Robert Kraft. From here on out they play for MHK. Patriots 38, Broncos 28.