DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots is gang tackled by a number of Denver Broncos players including Elvis Dumervil #92 on December 18, 2011 during the first half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
Tim Tebow and Tom Brady will be the most talked about players in this weekend's battle between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional Round, but both defenses could have a say in the affair as well.
While it's Tim Tebow who has received all the media attention during Denver's run to (and now through) the playoffs, there's a lot more to the Broncos than the miracle worker under center. It's difficult to work a comeback after three quarters of complete offensive ineptitude, after all, if the other team has taken the opportunity to build up a big lead.
Cue the defense.
Allowing an average of just 17 points in their wins with Tebow, the Denver defense was integral part of five of the former Gator's comeback wins, and offered him a chance to seal their spot in the playoffs with a win against Kansas City. Like their quarterback, however, the defense suffers from serious consistency issues. From 17 points is wins, to 32 in losses, this is a unit that will hold a team to 200 yards in one game, and then give up 600 in the next.
In fact, it may surprise you to learn that despite being a target of ridicule for much of the year, the Patriots' defense grades out rather better than the Broncos in the most important stat of all: points allowed. It's not hard to see why, either. Staunch against the run and weak against the pass, the Patriots punish teams that try to take advantage of their apparent vulnerability by putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with the combo of Vince Wilfork and Mark Anderson, and making opportunistic plays when they force poor decisions. It's why the Patriots' turnover advantage is more than twice that of the next best AFC team. Denver comes in at a lowly -12, good for second to last.
For the Patriots, then, the game will be all about whether their front seven can get to Tim Tebow much in the way that the Steelers' did not. While a healthy Steelers defensive line may look more impressive than New Englands, Pittsburgh entered the game incredibly thin at the position thanks to numerous injuries, and then lost two more players as the game progressed. New England, while down Andre Carter, still have Wilfork, Anderson, and the rest of their starting seven in good health. In Week 15, this led to four sacks and-after a fast start-a mediocre night for Tim Tebow, who was forced to throw the ball away or into the ground time and again.
Even their weakness in the secondary does not necessarily play into Tebow's predilection for the long ball as much as it might seem. After all, while the Steelers were felled in overtime by bringing their whole defense up, daring Tebow to throw, the Patriots' secondary is hardly likely to commit the same mistake. With the pass defense often giving receivers large cushions at the line, the Patriots could force Tebow to adapt to making quick reads and accurate, well-timed short passes against a defense which won't give him quite the same space that Pittsburgh did.
Even if Tebow manages here, however, the Broncos will have to keep Brady from tearing them to pieces on every drive as he did the last time they played. They cannot do this by taking away his offensive weapons-Rob Gronkowski is nearly unguardable, Aaron Hernandez has stepped up when teams have focused on limiting Gronkowski, and then you still have to deal with Wes Welker. No, just like New England, the Broncos have to get at the quarterback.
This is something they've done with some regularity, of course, thanks to the combination of defensive lineman Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller. But the New England offensive line is no typical challenge. Ranked amongst the best in the game at protecting their quarterback, they held Denver to two sacks in Week 15, and hardly seem likely to allow Brady to take the same beating as Ben Roethlisberger took behind a line lacking Maurkice Pouncey. They will get to him on occasion, but when they don't it will be up to the rest of the unit to keep him from piling up the yards. And unless Brady is having a very off day, it's going to be hard to do that.
There's a curious dichotomy in the perception of these two defenses. New England's is lambasted as a unit that can't keep up or compete for a Championship, while Denver's is often hailed as the real driving force behind Tim Tebow's miracles. And yet, when stacked up against eachhother, New England comes away looking like perhaps the smarter bet. The game will be the same for each unit this Saturday, if for different reasons: get after the quarterback. And as of right now, it's looking like New England could have the advantage in that fight.