The Broncos are going to beat the Patriots Sunday.
Sorry, that’s just the way I see it. I am not rooting for the Broncos. I am not into Satanic worship. Please do not kill my whole family. I am often wrong (remember the 2013 Red Sox, destined for last place?) and hopefully for New England fans, I will be wrong again.
The Patriots have proven folks wrong time and again. Overcoming doubters is the foundation of the Patriot franchise.
Doubting the Patriots this weekend is hardly a daring position. They are significant underdogs in Vegas. Most of the national TV panel guys will pick against New England. Some of the handicapping local car dealers will pick the Broncos. There might even be a footy-pajama fanboy or two with doubts about the Patriots’ ability to beat Peyton Manning.
So I am a doubter. My instinct says that this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where the high chairs meet Mile High. This is where the NFL reestablishes itself as a meritocracy. This is where competition and talent overwhelm Next Man Up, Bill Belichick’s all-knowing powers, the mystique of Tom Brady, and Bob Kraft’s control of CBS and all NFL committees. This is where the better team actually wins.
This is where somebody pulls the plug on the endless loop of “The Waltz of the Tomato Cans.” This is where the Patriots have to go on the road for a playoff game for the first time in seven years and play Big Boy Football in another guy’s stadium.
Abrupt and ugly. Sorry. You don’t automatically get to go to the Super Bowl because you think you’re smarter than everybody else. It’s not always about The System. Sometimes, it’s actually about the players. This feels like one of those times.
“I’m sure no one’s going to pick us this week,’’ Brady said in his contractually obligated radio gig this week. “It would be as satisfying a victory as we’ve ever had to go to Denver and win this game.’’
Yes, it would. We’ve already established that the 2013 season is Belichick’s tour de force. He has done more with less this season than at any other time in his career. Even 2001. The 2013 Patriots were an absolute house of cards in September and have been further depleted by devastating injuries to key players.
Now they are playing their best football at a time when it matters most. They have deftly and magically adjusted to things that have happened to them and they have come out the other side a better team than they were in September. They are the ground-and-pound Patriots. They win throwing the ball only 25 times per game. They have the best no-name defense since the 1970s Miami Dolphins. Belichick is taking guys off the street and beating every team in his path.
But these Patriots are not better than the Broncos. Too many things have happened.
What do the Patriots have going for them? As usual, they have the fragility of the opposition. This is their top weapon: the self-doubt of the other team. The Broncos have plenty of doubt. They spit the bit against the Ravens in the playoffs last year. They choked away a 24-0 lead in Foxborough in November. Peyton Manning lives with the notion that he is the latter-day Wilt Chamberlain: all numbers, not so many rings.
The head coach of the Broncos is nice guy John Fox, a man who looks alarmingly like Grady Little. Fox even has Grady’s North Carolina connections. Fox was the man Belichick beat in the Super Bowl in Houston in 2004. He is prone to panic. If this game were being played in Foxborough, we could count on the head coach of the Broncos losing his mind.
Fortunately for Denver fans, Fox knows his way around Mile High. He knew enough to defer when he won the coin toss against the Chargers Sunday. He knows how to take advantage of his substantial offensive weaponry.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is another matter. Del Rio helps the Patriots. He consistently has been overwhelmed by the Aura of Bill. Del Rio twice was spanked by Belichick in playoff games when he was head coach of the Jaguars. Del Rio was serving as interim head coach of the Broncos when Denver blew the big lead at Gillette. Del Rio is the man who neglected to have a second punt returner standing in front of Wes Welker in overtime.
The Patriots are 13-4. They have been lucky and opportunistic in some of their wins, but they were victims of tough calls and breaks in three of their four losses. They lost two games by 4 points, one by 3 points (in overtime), and one by 7 points. With 22 points in the right place, they could be undefeated.
But we all know they are not that good. And they have no familiarity with road games in the playoffs. The 2013 Patriots were a pedestrian 4-4 on the road. They have not played a road playoff game in seven years.
They are not going to win this week.
That’s opinion, not fact.Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.