It has been 1,456 days since the Patriots last won a playoff game, a 21-12 victory over the Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 20, 2008, in the AFC Championship game.
Since then, New England has suffered three stinging defeats, each time as the favorite, against the Giants (Super Bowl XLII, 12 points), Ravens (2009 wild card, 3 points), and Jets (2010 divisional, 9 points).
Today, the Patriots (13-3) are 13 1/2-point favorites against the Broncos (9-8).
And the drought should, finally, end.
There are two ways to beat the Tom Brady-led Patriots, and the upstart Broncos don’t seem to have the right formula to do either, provided New England doesn’t lose the turnover battle by more than two.
The most tested method of beating the Patriots is to affect Brady enough to keep the offense well below its average of 32.1 points per game.
The other is simply to get in a track meet and hope your offense can beat the Patriots’ defense worse than their offense beats yours. Basically, whoever gets the ball last wins.
The Broncos can’t do the latter, and don’t figure to pull off the former.
If a team can negate the Patriots’ usual offensive advantage, it puts the other two phases of the game into play. New England plays at least to a draw in special teams, but it certainly can be had defensively.
We all know about the pass defense. The 8.04 yards per attempt allowed is the 43d-worst mark since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
But lately, the rush defense has become an issue as well.
Since beating the Jets in Week 10 and sitting as the ninth-ranked run defense per game, the Patriots have allowed 5.03 yards per carry (30th in the league) and dropped to 17th in the rankings.
The only saving grace for the defense has been its 23 interceptions, which lead the AFC and are tied for second in the NFL behind Green Bay (31).
However, 15 of those 23 interceptions came against five quarterbacks: Ryan Fitzpatrick (6), Tyler Palko (3), Philip Rivers (2), Jason Campbell (2), and Mark Sanchez (2). Only Campbell, who played just six games and doesn’t qualify for league statistics, had an interception percentage lower than 3.3 percent (2.4). The average for an NFL starter is 2.6 percent. Sanchez (3.3) was 24th among qualifiers. Rivers (3.4) was 26th. Fitzpatrick (4.0) ranked 30th. Palko’s mark of 5.2 in six games (four starts) would be last in the league if he qualified.
So the Patriots’ defense can be beaten in a number of ways, and the Broncos should be able to do damage provided they don’t turn the ball over three times, like they did Dec. 18.
But the Broncos don’t score enough.
Since Tim Tebow took over as starting quarterback in Week 7, the Broncos have scored more than 23 points in regulation twice: in victories over the Raiders (38-24) and the Vikings (35-32). But not only are those the 29th- and 31st-ranked teams in points allowed, respectively, but both those teams turned the ball over three times. And against Minnesota, the Broncos got a defensive touchdown, and a 63-yard kickoff return provided a short field for a touchdown drive.
In the other 10 games, including the wild-card overtime victory against the Steelers, the Broncos have averaged 15.4 points in regulation.
Denver simply isn’t explosive enough offensively to keep pace with the Patriots’ offense.
That means the Broncos’ defense has to keep Brady and the Patriots in the 17-23 point range for Denver to have a chance.
We saw nothing in the first matchup to indicate that’s possible without a Patriots implosion.
The teams that know Brady best with a coach or coordinator who has faced him multiple times - the Jets (Rex Ryan), Cowboys (Rob Ryan), Chiefs (Romeo Crennel), Dolphins (Mike Nolan), and Ravens (Chuck Pagano) - have shown the game plan for beating Brady. But you have to play nearly perfect, and your talent better be playing at a high level for that game.
Even if you have to use blitzes - though rushing four is preferable - you must get to Brady early in the game and knock him around. The hope is that will speed Brady up enough to throw him out of rhythm and get him to pay more attention to the pass rush and less to coverages.
When Brady is in total command, it’s easy to see. He stands tall in the pocket and seems oblivious to what’s going on in his vicinity. The good ship Brady doesn’t so much as rock side to side as the seas rage around him.
If the defense is affecting Brady, his head starts to bob and weave in and out of passing lanes as he feels pressure - even if it isn’t there. Then a team can mix coverages.
The starting point is playing man coverage as tightly as possible. Slam the receivers and tight ends as soon as possible within that 5-yard box, and hope that further throws off the timing. Then start mixing in zone coverages - and don’t use the same calls in succession. Brady and the receivers are too smart.
Then, the really good coordinators come out with a different twist in the second half, maybe with some zone exchanges or fire zones. Rush only two a few times and drop nine into coverage to really change things up.
And then pray your offense can win time of possession and covert in the red zone at a high percentage.
The good thing for the Patriots is very few teams have the talent, experience, and discipline necessary to pull off that master plan.
The Giants did in ’07. The Ravens did in ’09. So did the Jets in ’10. This season, Ryan ran out of schemes to throw at Brady, and his defense, especially at linebacker, got old.
The Broncos have the opposite problem: They’re too young on defense. They started two rookies, Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore, at safety - a key position in slowing a complicated passing attack - against the Patriots. Even David Bruton, who started for Moore against the Steelers, is only in his third season.
The defensive players with previous playoff experience are cornerback Champ Bailey, who plays on an island, safety Brian Dawkins (injured), and tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who doesn’t play much against the pass.
The rest are as green as Gillette’s FieldTurf.
That’s likely why Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen only called two blitzes (outside of a fourth-and-1 play) on Brady’s first 23 dropbacks (8.7 blitz percentage) into the third quarter. By that time, New England had a 27-16 lead.
From that point on, in desperation mode, Allen sent at least one extra rusher on 60 percent of Brady’s dropbacks for the rest of the game - and the Broncos got both of their sacks that way.
After Allen viewed the game film - he got zero pressure from his interior rushers when sending three or four at Brady - and the schemes pulled off by teams that upended Brady and the Patriots, the coordinator has to know he has to manufacture more pressure. He has to dial up more blitzes.
Will he? It’s the Broncos’ only hope to do what few others have done before them: upset the Patriots.