DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Running back Danny Woodhead #39 of the New England Patriots celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in the third quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
There's more to the offensive game of the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos than just Tom Brady and Tim Tebow. Luke Hughes explains that Saturday’s game is loaded with offensive talent well beyond the quarterbacks.
Over the past few days all of the Tebow talk and Brady boasting has run so rampant throughout Boston, it's been almost deafening.
You turn on the radio for some morning sports talk: boom, it's Tebow time! Trying to grab a sandwich at the local sub shop? Nope. Tebowmaniacs are ready to run wild on you a la Hulk Hogan. I even had an older woman, had to be in her 60's, stir up a little Tebow convo in line at Dunkin' Donuts.
It's become an epidemic. Tebow is like an ex-girlfriend you want to forget, but every time you think you're finally free from the addictive grasp, you get sucked right back into the same old game.
At this point, all you can really do is accept the Tebow addiction as your fate and prepare for Saturday's highly anticipated QB duel.
But, while the whole world is seemingly focused on this game's pair of polarizing quarterbacks, it's gotten awfully easy to forget some of the other names that could impact Saturday night's outcome.
Willis McGahee only ran for 1200 yards on the ground this season, good enough for 8th best in the NFL. Wes Welker merely led the NFL with 122 catches on the year -- 22 more than the second place receiver (Roddy White). Rob Gronkowski simply broke the single-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) by a tight end. No big deal, right?
Fact is Saturday's game is loaded with talent well beyond the guy's taking snaps under center. No offense Tebow, but the Patriots have four Pro Bowl starters on offense (Welker, Gronkowski, Mankins and Waters) and that's excluding Brady.
It's as if both offensive units are one-man shows. I can even picture that Ball State broadcaster (clarification HERE) calling Saturday's game and no one even noticing -- "Tebow passes it to man, and boom goes the dynamite..."
Sure, Tebow is going to incite the ground game with a little wild horse option, he'll even drop a few balls in across the middle just to keep the Patriots secondary honest.
As for Brady, the maestro will undoubtedly cue up his pinpoint accuracy and surgeon like precision as he cuts, slices and saws his way through the backbone of the Broncos' defense.
It's inevitable really that both quarterbacks make the plays necessary to put their respective offenses in a position to succeed. But, while the spotlight shines brightly down on Saturday night's main event "Brady vs. Tebow II at Gillette", as it unquestionably will, it'll likely be the work of each stars' supporting cast that will ultimately decide the outcome.
So, in fairness, let's call the QB's a wash for now and compare each offensive unit as a whole.
Protecting the QB
The core group of them has been keeping Brady safe for a number of years, throw in some steady rookie play by Nate Solder, even Marcus Cannon did well late in the season, and you're talking about possibly the best protection unit in the league.
Thanks to the stellar protection Brady has only been sacked 32 times this season, good enough for 9th best in the NFL this season. In fact, the only remaining playoff team allowing less quarterback sacks this year was New Orleans, who finished second with just 24 allowed in 2011.
On the other hand, the Broncos rank as the 9th worst in the league at pass protection, allowing 42 sacks on the year. In his 12 starts this season, Tebow was sacked 33 times, one more than Brady accounted for in all 16 games and good enough for 12th worst among NFL quarterbacks.
It's clear, just based on the numbers and Tebow's constant need to scramble outside the pocket, that the Broncos don't do their best work in pass protection - a place where the Patriots excel.
On first glance, the Patriots - when healthy - seem to have an advantage down in the trenches, but with a hodge podge of running backs filling New England's backfield there's no one who can quite match the elite level of McGahee.
Denver's line is also severely underrated and needn't be overlooked. The Broncos' bruisers up front have excelled in the running game this season, consistently opening up roomy holes for McGahee and Tebow to slip through.
Led by two-time All-Pro lineman, Ryan Clady and rookie Tackle Orlando Franklin the Broncos have seen a resurgence in their ground attack, leading the NFL with 164.5 rushing yards per game in 2011.
New England on the other hand ranks 20th in the NFL in rushing offense, churning out just 110 yards per game. But, the Pats do rank 3rd in rushing touchdowns with 18, seven better than the Broncos this season.
When healthy, the Patriots would still a strong and formidable line, but that raises the money question: will New England be healthy come Saturday?
Health has been a major issue for the Patriots' line this season. The injury bug bit the Patriots early on, as starting center Dan Koppen was lost for the season after fracturing his right ankle in Week 1 against the Dolphins. Since then, it's been a work in progress to bandage up the center spot with the likes of Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell picking up the slack.
On the outside, Belichick and Co. haven't faired much better. Vollmer has been ailing all year from a recurring back problem, limiting the Patriots' Right Tackle to just six games. Meanwhile, Mankins (knee) and Light (ankle) both suffered injuries late in the season and while Light looks like a lock to start come Saturday, Mankins MCL sprain could still impact his status against Denver.
In the end, the lines are about equal in terms of opening up running lanes, which means the real disparity lies between the Patriots running backs and the Broncos' combination of McGahee and Tebow.
Denver offers a much more potent ground game and one that could neutralize the Patriots' secondary, forcing more men in the box and ultimately passing lanes for Tebow. For the Pats to even compete, they'll need some extra effort out of the Law Firm BJGE or for rookie tailback Stevan Ridley to fill the empty void in the backfield.
Even given Demaryius Thomas' insane Wild Card performance, accounting for 204 yards and the game clinching 80-yard touchdown, the Patriots receiving options are still hands down the better unit.
There is no comparing Thomas, Eric Decker or any other receivers on the Broncos' roster with Welker, there's no complement for Aaron Hernandez's speed and shiftiness, and there certainly isn't any equivalent for Gronk's pass catching and strength in breaking tackles.
Sure, New England lacks a speed guy on the outside to stretch the defense over the top, but Belichicks' use of Welker, Gronk, Hernandez and Deion Branch essentially quells any need for that speed receiver.
The Broncos only real weapon outside is Thomas, who can provide that Randy Moss like element of blowing the top off the defense from time to time. But, even given the Patriots league-worst secondary, Thomas alone - especially with Decker's status still uncertain -- is not enough to give Denver an edge.
The Patriots clearly have the better all around offensive system and superior personnel, especially at the skill positions. Denver offers a lot in terms of brute strength up front and if New England's defensive front doesn't buckle down early, McGahee and Broncos' ground game could punish the Pats.
Expect Belichick to try and establish the ground game early in the first quarter to tighten up the Broncos' linebackers and open up passing lanes for Gronk and Welker over the middle. If Ridley or Law Firm can make headway, giving Danny Woodhead some opportunities to break out in Shotgun formations, Brady will be looking at green grass down field all night.
Patriots' offensive line health and the Broncos' receivers are key to either side gaining a serious edge. Whichever squad is able to better establish consistent play off their primary weakness should squeeze out of Foxboro with the win.
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