Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Saturday, December 17, 2011
Deliverance is upon us

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

DENVER -- The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have different styles of play, but they share one common thread that is crucial for any football team.

In the critical moments, both have shown a knack for delivering. Now they're on a collision course for Sunday (4:15 p.m. ET) in a highly anticipated AFC clash.

The Broncos like to run it; the Patriots prefer the pass.

Denver attacks in hopes of forcing the issue on defense; the Patriots bend but don't break.

It doesn't always look great for either team, but who can argue with the bottom-line results? The 8-5 Broncos have won six in a row, while the 10-3 Patriots have ripped off five straight.

"They've been doing a real good job at winning ballgames, just pulling games out," Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "I always [say], good teams find a way to win. They've been finding ways to win. It seems like the more critical it gets, the better they get as a unit."

This, too, is part of the Patriots' DNA. They've proved to be a tough team to knock out, just as Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow's resiliency has resonated with his Denver teammates and seemingly made them a tougher squad.

Tim Tebow, Willis McGahee
The Broncos go as far as the legs of Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee can take them.

How the Patriots defend Tebow and the Broncos' diverse rushing attack that includes the option represents one of the keys to the game. The expectation is that the Patriots won't go too far off the map in terms of exotic schemes, but instead will focus on a simpler plan in which fundamentals and discipline are stressed.

While defenders were quick to point out this week that the Broncos are more than just Tebow, they know that's where it starts.

"I don't look at him as a quarterback. He's a quarterback slash running back slash fullback slash tight end. He's a slasher," Wilfork said, adding that would-be tacklers often bounce off the 6-foot-3, 236-pound Tebow -- similar to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- if they don't wrap him up with good technique.

The Patriots want to keep Tebow in the pocket. A successful plan would be to limit the Broncos' rushing attack, which ranks first in the NFL in yards per game (156.2), and make Tebow play a more traditional quarterback role. Tebow is completing just 48 percent of his passes, and the Broncos are averaging only 160 yards passing per game.

That's easy to draw up but harder to bring to life on the football field. No NFL team is more committed to the run in terms of disparity between runs (433) and passes (355).

"As a defensive guy who loves contact and loves the running game, you got it this week," said Wilfork, who is playing almost 90 percent of the snaps and is the team's best run-stopper. "They're going to run the ball. That's what they do, the best team in the league doing it."

For the much-maligned Patriots defense, which ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed but 14th in the all-important points-allowed category, run defense hadn't been a major issue until last week against the Redskins, when rookie Roy Helu & Co. racked up 170 yards.

In Week 4, the Patriots slowed Oakland's Darren McFadden, who at the time was the league's leading rusher. Then when the Jets wanted to ground-and-pound the next week, the Patriots once again held firm.

So this type of challenge seems to be right in the wheelhouse of a defense that is strongest closer to the line of scrimmage against the run. It's when the opposition goes to the air that the troubles have cropped up.

With this in mind, would Denver consider opening things up with Tebow and using him more consistently in the role of the traditional quarterback? It's an interesting question to ponder, the line of thinking that if Dan Orlovsky (Colts) and Rex Grossman (Redskins) can put up big numbers against the porous New England passing D in recent weeks, why not Tebow?

Jerod Mayo
Jerod Mayo would love to celebrate his contract extension with an INT Sunday, although Tebow is the least likely NFL QB to toss a pick.

If the Broncos do go that route, it will be getting away from part of their identity, and that's likely part of the concern.

However it unfolds, if the game is close late, that's when both teams have been at their best. That only adds to the intrigue.

"You can play 55 minutes of good football, but if you don't have it together for those [final] five minutes of the ballgame, those 55 minutes really don't mean anything," Wilfork said before the Patriots departed for Denver on Friday, giving them a full Saturday to work in the Rockies. "The more critical it gets, the better they get. That's a tough football team.

"They've been taking games in overtime, the fourth quarter, pulling games out," he continued. "So that's a sign of a good football team. A lot of people probably look at it differently, but I always say, 'Good teams find a way to win.'"

Wilfork also knows the best teams don't wait until the final five minutes to turn it on. They keep the foot pressed to the accelerator for the full 60, which has been an elusive goal for the Patriots this season.

Sometimes they've started fast and then let teams back into games. Other times they've started slow and roared back.

"We just have to start fast and finish strong. We've been preaching that the last month and just reiterating that," Wilfork said. "If we don't do that this week, it will be an L for us. We know we're going to get everything they have. We're going to have to be able to withstand those hits, take those blows and keep pushing forward."

The push is on for both teams.

Patriots-Broncos. Tom Brady-Tim Tebow. Two clubs with contrasting styles of play that rise up in critical moments.

As Wilfork said, "This is what football is all about."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.