Friday, December 16, 2011 Updated: December 17, 2:25 PM ET
Don't say his name, in vain or otherwise
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Perhaps you've been over-Tebowed this week? If so, you've come to the right place.
Welcome to the non-Tebow zone.
The New England Patriots visit the Denver Broncos on Sunday (CBS, 4:15 p.m. ET), and while the Broncos quarterback whose full name will not be mentioned here is one of the more compelling NFL stories to come along in recent memory, there is a lot more to this matchup than him.
Here is a touchdown's worth of top Tebow-less storylines for this much-anticipated clash:
1. Hat and T-shirt game. With so much attention focused on one player, it's almost easy to overlook that the Patriots would clinch the AFC East championship with a victory. That makes this a hat-and-T-shirt game -- if the Patriots win, players will have AFC East championship hats and T-shirts waiting for them in the locker room -- which is the first goal the team sets each season. In Bill Belichick's 12 seasons as Patriots coach, this would mark his ninth AFC East title. Meanwhile, the Broncos (8-5) have a one-game lead in the AFC West.
2. Brady against the Broncos. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 1-6 lifetime against the Broncos, the lone win coming in 2003. Denver is the only team against which Brady has a losing record. In games played at Denver, Brady is 1-4. "Losing sucks, you hate losing, but there's nothing I can do about those games in the past now, so I'll just try to win this one," Brady said. "That will make me feel pretty good."
Lest we forget, Denver has to figure out how to stop Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker.
3. Gronkowski's encore. For all the talk about how the Patriots will defend the Broncos' unique offensive approach, there has been little attention paid to how the Broncos will plan for Rob Gronkowski and his NFL-record-for-a-tight-end 15 touchdown receptions. Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, he is a powerful blocker at the line of scrimmage, but he runs as well as some receivers. What are the Broncos' plans to defend him?
4. Prater a weapon. It's not often that a kicker is referred to as a dangerous weapon, but that is how the Patriots view Denver's Matt Prater, who is the first player since Arizona's Chris Jacke (1998) to kick a game-winning field goal on the last play of a game in three consecutive contests. But it's not just Prater's clutch performance that has the Patriots on guard; it's also his knack for successful onside kicks. Prater has a strong leg, which could affect strategy in terms of what's considered field goal range. For what it's worth, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski's career long of 53 yards was at Denver on Oct. 11, 2009.
5. McGahee's revival. Now in his ninth season, 30-year-old Willis McGahee has turned back the clock in his first year with the Broncos. McGahee rushed for 671, 544 and 380 yards in his previous three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens (2008-2010), but he could break 1,000 on Sunday. In 11 starts, he has totaled 920 rushing yards this season, with four touchdowns. "Willis is still Willis. He's still running hard, making those jump cuts," said Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, a former teammate of McGahee at the University of Miami. "He probably doesn't have the speed he used to have, but he's still fast, he's still quick. He's a hard-nosed runner, one of those backs where you can give it to him 20-25 times per game. He's one of those guys who can carry the load."
6. Solder's homecoming. Patriots first-round draft choice Nate Solder returns home, and he is projected to start at right tackle, which would be his ninth start of the season (two came as a blocking tight end). Solder, who grew up in Buena Vista, Colo., and played at the University of Colorado, has been lauded by the Patriots' staff for his quick contributions. Part of the reason the Patriots liked Solder was his work against Von Miller, Denver's impressive rookie. Now the two could meet up again, and the Broncos' best chance of disrupting the rhythm of the Patriots' passing game is to generate pressure with Miller, Elvis Dumervil & Co. up front.
For good measure, here's a try for the 2-point conversion of Tebow-less angles:
7. Patriots' unsettled secondary -- will it matter? Safety Patrick Chung will miss his sixth straight game with a foot injury as the Patriots continue to mix and match in parts of the secondary. The Broncos might be a run-first team, but they do take some shots down the field, so the Patriots' back end figures to be tested at times. Furthermore, cornerback Devin McCourty had some early struggles last week against the Redskins before rebounding in the second half. Can he keep it going?
8. Does a receiver emerge besides Welker? Veteran receiver Deion Branch (zero catches in 46 snaps) was unable to finish last Sunday's game with a groin injury and was limited in practice all week, so it's possible the Patriots might have a need for a No. 2 receiver. Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood would be the top candidates, with Underwood playing more than Ochocinco last week.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.