BOSTON (CBS) - The Patriots have a playoff drought to end, and the Denver Broncos are standing in their way.
The Pats are winless in the playoffs since January 2008, going 0-for-3 in that span. The previous two loses have both come at Gillette Stadium.
In comes the Denver Broncos, who backed their way into the playoffs but were too much for the powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers to handle last weekend. An overtime victory earned them a trip to Foxboro and another go against the Patriots.
The Pats used three second quarter turnovers to their advantage when the two teams met out in Denver in Week 15 and were the first team to figure out how to stop Tim Tebow and company.
But the playoffs, as everyone in New England knows, are a different animal.
Here are some of the key matchups for Saturday night's Divisional playoff.
Pats D vs Broncos Run Game
With Tebow at the helm, the Broncos have a very unique attack on the ground. He can either hand it off to the talented Willis McGahee or keep it himself. The Patriots were not ready for this in Week 15, and got torched for 157 yards in just the first quarter. The Patriots made some adjustments and Denver finished the game with 95 rushing yards the rest of the way, but they shed some light on the fact New England's rush defense wasn't as good as people were saying.
The Patriots struggled with the run to close the season, allowing five straight 100+ yard games (Indianapolis had 99 yards, but the Pats can thank a single negative yard run from Dan Orlovsky for keeping that from six straight). But New England does get a few reinforcements back in Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes, who both sat out the game in Denver. Those two will be huge cogs in clogging the middle of the field and keeping any of the Broncos from breaking off a big gain.
Whiteboard: The Denver Option
The Broncos succeeded in Week 15, to start at least, because they were making the Patriots miss. Sloppy tackling is one thing the Pats are going to make sure they clean up Saturday night.
"Something big on our list is tackling," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "This guy [Tim Tebow], he's tough in the pocket and he's tough out of the pocket. These backs, their receivers, I mean anybody that gets the ball in their hands is pretty good with it in their hands. We'll have to do a good job of tackling. I think we can't depend on one guy to try to make a play or bring down these guys. I think we're going to need two, three, four guys around the ball at all times to be successful, be a good tackling team. I think the success that people have tackling, you see a lot of gang tackles. That's intimidation. One guy, that's tough. They get paid just like we get paid. The more people we can get to the ball, get around the ball, the better we'll be."
Tebow knows he is going up against a veteran defensive line, anchored by Wilfork. He had nothing but praise for the defense that was able to put an end to his regular season winning a month ago.
"They do a lot of different things. You have to be prepared for that, and they do them well. They're very smart, instinctive players that are coached up very well," he said. "I think, for us, it's just executing, holding onto the ball, not turning it over and being sound in what we do and finding a way to get some big plays. If we do that, hopefully we can control the ball and keep it out of Brady's hands."
But the Patriots cannot fall into the same trap Pittsburgh did, giving Tebow the long passes. Keep him to the middle of the field, and make sure defenders are there. He will be able to make some plays against the Pats zone, but that's better than letting him doing what every other quarterback in the NFL did to the the Pats secondary this regular season.
Patriots Offensive Line vs Broncos Pass-Rush
For the Patriots, protecting Tom Brady is always a must. In the playoffs, that gets magnified with better defenses on the docket.
In their three straight playoff loses, Brady has been sacked 13 times and hit another 19. In comes Denver, who has Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller to send his way. The Pats already had to handle them once, and Brady was nearly crushed on several occasions.
Brady says he isn't worried about the impending Broncos pass-rush, but he has to have that one monster hit from Dumervil in the back of his mind.
"There were a few times where they got to us, but for the most part, we've faced some pretty good pass rushers all season and these two are no different," he said on Tuesday. "They blitz quite a bit and the linebackers make some sacks. D.J. Williams can get to the passer. The safeties blitz. It can really be anybody. Obviously Elvis and Von, they can play; they're very good players. I've had the opportunity to play against Elvis a number of times and he's a phenomenal player."
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was kept in check receiving-wise in Denver but had a great day blocking, said putting extra time in to study the pass-rush this past week will be the key to success on Saturday.
"They are great players and they're both outstanding players, especially Von Miller being a rookie and doing what he's doing. I mean you've got to be ready; you've got to watch the film on them – not just them, but their whole defense. They're all good, they're all fast and we've got to be able to learn what they can do so we can be prepared when it comes down to game time."
Brady didn't seem to mind the contact too much, as he ran in a pair of goal line scores against the Broncos. Maybe that was just to let Tebow know he could run in touchdowns as well.
Much like the defense, the offensive line is counting on a pair of contributors returning. Logan Mankins should be back after missing the regular season finale with a sprained MCL, and Sebastian Vollmer could also return after missing most of the season with a bad back.
Mankins said he was day-to-day as of Thursday, and he was listed as "questionable" on the final injury report. It's hard to imagine the Pro Bowler wouldn't suit up for a playoff game, especially when he knows how important his contributions could be.
"We know if we can play good Tom takes care of the rest. We've watched those games. We know most of the time it was the result of us not doing the right thing," said Mankins. "It was guys getting in bad positions. It was more mental than physical."
With the Broncos defense constantly in motion before the snap, everyone one offense has to make sure they know who they're blocking.
"It's just important for everybody out there — the offensive line, the tight ends, the quarterback and the running backs to all see the same thing to make sure we all identify whatever it is they're in properly so we can get on the right guy," head coach Bill Belichick said.
The bottom line is Tom Brady is pretty good when he Is standing up, but he can't do much from his backside. The Patriots need to break the trend of letting defenders get their licks on #12, and they'll win their first playoff game in four years.
Tom Brady vs Champ Bailey
This is a battle of veterans. In nine games against Brady, Bailey's Broncos have won six of them including a 27-13 win in the 2006 Divisional round. Bailey picked Brady in that game, and nearly had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. This time out, he won't have to worry about Benjamin Watson chasing him down at the one-yard line.
Neither of them like facing each other very much, but they sure do respect one another.
"It's more frustrating when you're out there because he's so good. He's one of the best ever," Bailey said. "I think a lot of people want to find out who's going to be the next guy, but he always reminds everybody he's still the best."
"I wish I could have him on our team and not play against him. I'm tired of playing against him," Brady said. "He definitely challenges us. He is a huge factor in every game that we play against them. I have a ton of respect for him and you always have to be careful throwing the ball to his side of the field."
"He's really a playmaker for them," said Brady. "He's a great leader. He's everything you look for in a football player."
"He's smart, accurate, he has all the tools," said Bailey. "He's tough, confident. Everything you want in a player."
Denver has always seemed like a thorn in the Patriots side, and having Bailey on the defense doesn't help Brady's cause. He has lost a step and isn't the shut-down corner he once was, but the 13-year veteran can still keep quarterbacks from hitting their desired target.
For Brady, he just needs to find the open man. He has too many targets for the Broncos to cover, and should be able to find them. With Gronkowski and Welker covered most of the day in Denver, Brady went to Aaron Hernandez and anyone else that was open. He hit five different guys not named Gronk, Welker or Hernandez, including Chad Ochocinco for his only touchdown of the season.
Don't expect Tiquan Underwood to get many targets in this one, but then again, if he is open then Brady will find him.
Tune in to the Patriots-Broncos playoff game Saturday night at 8pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV. Pregame coverage begins Saturday at 5pm with Patriots Preview on 98.5, with a special edition of Patriots GameDay on WBZ-TV at 7pm. After the game, stay tuned for Patriots Postgame on The Hub, and Patriots 5th Quarter on WBZ-TV.
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