The Boston Globe breaks down the X’s and O’s for the Patriots’ divisional playoff matchup with the Broncos and offers a prediction for who will win:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
Tom Brady and the Patriots had few problems moving the ball against Denver last month and that will be the case again. Although the Broncos can pressure the pocket (hello, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller), 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 5-9, 190-pound dynamo uses quick feet and strong hands to move the chains. You may be able to jostle him around at the line for a while, but sooner or later he’s going to make his mark. Rob Gronkowski is next up. The monstrous tight end (6-6, 265 pounds) 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 pounds) has excellent athleticism and strong hands. He can make catches in traffic and will fight for extra yards almost to a fault. He shredded the Broncos for nine catches and 129 yards last month. Deion Branch is a smooth route runner with great hands and a great rapport with Brady. He is due for a big game.
Cornerback Champ Bailey is the leader of the secondary. A tough, physical player with great mirror skills, Bailey is 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 (he’s big and rangy) and David Bruton (he’s tough and physical) provide solid support.
Passing yards per game:
New England offense: 428.0 (Second)
Denver defense: 231.5 (18th)
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Time for this fresh-legged stable of backs to step up and help 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 5-11, 225-pounder has good vision. He uses nice spin moves to avoid contact and will break through tackles.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a well-built, 5-11, 215-pounder who runs hard and always finishes with power. He isn’t hitting the holes with the same authority he’s shown in the past — but 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 pounds) has excellent quickness, vision, and quickness. He lacks the size or strength to consistently break tackles.
New England’s interior three of center Dan Connolly (he’s solid and steady) 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 pounds) is a load. He has good initial quickness and tremendous lower body strength. He’s tough to move. Thomas (6-3, 316 pounds) is quick but inconsistent. Linebackers D.J. Williams and Joe Mays are very active. Williams will shed blocks quickly and explode into ball carriers. Mays has the quickness and strength to fill lanes and punish runners.
Rushing yards per game:
New England offense: 110.2 (20th)
Denver defense: 126.3 (22d)
WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN
Willis 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 (6-2, 235 pounds) and strength. He has excellent vision and still has nice burst to the hole. He runs with good pad level and will break tackles and make mucho yards after first contact. McGahee thrives on a heavy workload. 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 pounds) 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 pounds) and can push the pile like one. He has tremendous lower-body strength and nobody breaks more tackles — gang tackling/piling on is a must.
New England’s mammoth tackles Vince Wilfork (he’s swift and strong) and Kyle Love (ditto) have the power and girth to clog running lanes and force Tebow to bounce outside. When that happens, aggressive linebackers Jerod Mayo (superior instincts) and Rob Ninkovich (a relentless pursuer) have to wrap up Tebow. Physical safeties Patrick Chung (always around the ball) and James Ihedigbo (seemingly injured on every play) have to play close to the box to provide support.
Rushing yards per game:
Denver offense: 164.5 (First)
New England defense: 117.1 (17th)
WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS
Tebow’s mechanics (or lack thereof) have been well-documented. The concerns are valid. 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 reading through his progressions and too often locks on to his primary receiver. He often abandons the pocket prematurely and will either tuck the ball and run or make ill-advised passes on the run. He has come along way and is coming off perhaps his best game (despite going 10 of 21), throwing for 316 yards and a two TDs. He can lull defenses to sleep with his lack of passing production before hitting a surprise big play.
Mark Anderson (good first-step quickness) and 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 (6-3, 229 pounds) has excellent size and strong hands. Never known as a burner, Thomas does have an elusive second gear in the open field. Eddie Royal (5-10, 185 pounds) is muscular and fearless. He is quick off the snap, runs excellent routes, and has no problem going over the middle. He will, however, disappear for long stretches. Tight end Daniel Fells (6-4, 252 pounds) has decent hands and surprising quickness.
New England’s secondary will give up huge chunks of yards but this group keeps improving. Patrick Chung provides stability and corners Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington make more plays than mistakes.
Passing yards per game:
Denver offense: 152.1 (31st)
New England defense: 293.9 (31st)
BRONCOS’ KEY PLAYER: Demaryius Thomas
The second-year receiver has excellent size (6-3, 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: By hitting 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 breaking news there), so waiting until the last second to get into coverage will force him to wait and 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 Tim 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. Got into attack mode early and try to build a big lead.
Patriots 24, Broncos 13