Tonight, 8, Channel 4 (Line: Patriots by 13 1/2)
When the Patriots runTime for this fresh-legged stable to establish a balanced attack to keep the Broncos’ front seven honest and off Tom Brady’s back. Rookie Stevan Ridley has shown flashes that he may be ready to become the lead back. An energetic and competitive runner, the 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pounder uses nice spin moves to avoid contact and will break tackles. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) runs hard and always finishes with power. He isn’t hitting the holes with the same authority he’s shown in the past - a balky toe may be the reason. If the Patriots build an early lead, Green-Ellis will get a chance to kill the clock. Danny Woodhead (5-8, 195) has excellent quickness and vision. New England’s interior three of center Dan Connolly and guards Logan Mankins (he’s mean and nasty) and Brian Waters (he’s always accountable) must shed their initial blocks quickly and get on the linebackers. Denver’s run defense begins with tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Marcus Thomas. Bunkley (6-2, 306) has good initial quickness and tremendous lower-body strength. He’s tough to move. Thomas (6-3, 316) is quick but inconsistent. Linebackers D.J. Williams and Joe Mays are very active. Williams will shed blocks quickly and explode into ball carriers.
When the Patriots passTom Brady and the Patriots had few problems moving the ball against Denver Dec. 18 and that will be the case again tonight. Although the Broncos can pressure the pocket, Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly he avoids a lot of abuse. Brady has tremendous presnap recognition, audibles to exploit favorable matchups, and uses every weapon in his arsenal. The top gun is Wes Welker. The 5-foot-9-inch, 190-pound dynamo uses quick feet and strong hands to move the chains. Rob Gronkowski is next up. The monstrous tight end (6-6, 265) uses his size and strength to shed linebackers, catch balls in stride, and steamroll helpless defensive backs. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez (6-2, 250) has excellent athleticism and strong hands. He shredded the Broncos for nine catches and 129 yards last month. Deion Branch is a smooth route runner with great rapport with Brady. Champ Bailey is a tough, physical player, and as close to a shutdown corner as there is in the NFL. Opposite corner Andre’ Goodman is smart, but lacks deep speed. Safeties Quinton Carter and David Bruton provide solid support.
When the Broncos runWillis McGahee has suffered myriad injuries throughout his college and NFL career but keeps coming back and amazingly keeps improving with age. McGahee is an athletic running back with good size (6 feet 2 inches, 235 pounds) and strength. He has excellent vision and still has nice burst to the hole. If he finds his rhythm early, he can wear a defense down. If he gets stymied early, he gets frustrated and will get pouty. Lance Ball (5-9, 225) has good vision, runs hard, and will initiate contact. He isn’t a traditional change-of-pace back, but he can deliver some big plays. Tim Tebow is the wild card. The quarterback has become a master at the modified read-option offense. Always a threat to run, Tebow is powerful and competitive. He is built like a fullback (6-3, 245) and can push the pile like one. He has tremendous lower-body strength and nobody breaks more tackles - gang tackling is a must. New England’s mammoth tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love have the power and girth to clog running lanes and force Tebow to bounce outside. When that happens, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich have to wrap up Tebow. Physical safeties Patrick Chung and James Ihedigbo have to play close to the box to provide support.
When the Broncos passTim Tebow’s mechanics (or lack thereof) have been well documented. He has a poor throwing motion, poor footwork, and has trouble working under center. His next tight spiral will be his first. Tebow also struggles with his progressions and often locks on to his primary receiver. He often abandons the pocket prematurely. He has come a long way and is coming off perhaps his best game, throwing for 316 yards and two TDs. Mark Anderson (good first-step quickness) and Rob Ninkovich (plays every snap like it’s his last) need to keep Tebow contained. The Broncos’ receivers are a patient lot. They have no choice. When they get their shot, they usually come through. Demaryius Thomas (6 feet 3 inches, 229 pounds) has excellent size and strong hands. Eddie Royal (5-10, 185) is muscular and fearless. He will, however, disappear for long stretches. Tight end Daniel Fells (6-4, 252) has decent hands and surprising quickness. New England’s secondary will give up huge chunks of yards, but it keeps improving. Patrick Chung provides stability and corners Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington make more plays than mistakes.
BRONCOS’ KEY PLAYER: Demaryius Thomas
The second-year receiver has excellent size (6 feet 3 inches, 235 pounds), decent speed, and deceptive power - just ask Pittsburgh corner Ike Taylor how strong Thomas is.
How he beats you: With smoothness and strong hands. Thomas runs excellent routes, uses his big frame to shield defenders from the ball, and catches the ball in stride before kicking it into high gear.
How to shut him down: Hit him before he hits a big play. It’s easy to forget about Thomas because the Broncos are such a run-oriented offense. Account for him on every snap or he will wind up in your end zone.
BRONCOS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Short stories: Screens and dumpoffs are a must because the longer Tim Tebow stands in the pocket, the less chance he has to make plays.
2. Ground control: Keeping the ball away from Tom Brady is always a good policy. So pound the ball with Willis McGahee until the Patriots prove they can stop you.
3. Guessing game: Brady recognizes defenses quickly (no news there), so waiting until the last second to get into coverage will give him less time to adjust.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Fill the gaps: Stopping the run is huge. The Broncos savaged New England on the ground last month. Having run stuffers Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung back should help.
2. Kill the man with the ball: That’s Tebow. He’s tough as nails but he can only take so much abuse. So hitting him on every play is an absolute must.
3. Air raid: New England’s strength is its passing game (duh) and Denver’s secondary is a little beat up. The Patriots must get into attack mode early and try to build a big lead.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 13