The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos will take the field at Gillette Stadium in just a few short hours for their AFC Divisional Playoff Game to decide who will move on to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.
Many fans are expecting that Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow will be the one to decide the outcome of this game. He's led multiple late game comebacks and made some incredible plays to help seal victories for his team. Perhaps none was more spectacular though than the game last week in the AFC Wildcard Round against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tebow hit receiver Demariyus Thomas on the very first play of overtime for an 80 yard touchdown pass. The win marked the first time since 2006 that the Broncos had won a playoff game.
What was lost in that game was the defensive stand that the Broncos defense made late in the fourth quarter to allow the game to reach overtime. With the Steelers at the Denver 45 yard line with less than 90 seconds to play, Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil jarred the ball loose as he sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers would recover the ball, but not before losing 10 yards on the play.
It wasn't the first time that the Broncos defense had provided the opportunity to their star quarterback. There were six occasions during the final 11 weeks of the season that the defense was able to hold their opponents to 15 points or less. During those six games the Broncos went 5-1, only a 7-3 loss in the season finale to Kansas City in which Tebow played his worst game of the season prevented that record from being perfect.
Comparatively, when the defense has struggled, the Broncos have struggled mightily. Four times during that same 11 game span the Broncos defense surrendered 30 points or more, including the first meeting between the Patriots and Broncos, and only once did Tim Tebow manage to bail out his defense (against the Minnesota Vikings in the first week of December).
The lesson being that if you're relying on Tim Tebow to win football games for you, the chances are high that you'll be disappointed. The Broncos defense is the backbone of the team and is what allows them to be competitive at a high level. I don't mean to minimize the fireworks that Tebow has provided in many fourth quarters and overtimes this season, but the reality is that while Tebow has certainly made strides this year, he isn't yet good enough to put a team on his back for 60 minutes.
With that in mind, the Broncos defense, led by Dumervil, rookie linebacker Von Miller, and veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, faces an enormous challenge in trying to slow down the high powered passing attack of the New England Patriots. Between Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker, the defense doesn't appear to have many favorable match-ups to try and exploit in this game.
In the earlier meeting this season, the Broncos got off to a terrific start in the first quarter, but a couple of turnovers in the second quarter opened the floodgates and the Patriots offense simply overwhelmed the Broncos at Mile High Stadium en route to the 41-23 final score. For the most part, the game was dominated by Pats and the loss sent the Broncos into a bit of a tailspin that saw them lose their last three games of the regular season before last week's wild affair in the Wild Card Round.
One bright spot though, would seem to be the number of hits that Denver was able to get on Tom Brady throughout the game. It's no secret that the key to slowing the Patriots offense lies in the ability to pressure Brady and limit his accuracy. The Pats offensive line is, at best, average, particularly on the left side where veteran Matt Light alternates between being horrendous and below average throughout the game. With a pair of pass rushers the caliber of Dumervil and Miller, the Broncos would seem to have the type of players that, under the right circumstances, could slow down a Patriots offense that cracked the 30 point barrier 12 times this season.
If the Broncos are able to continuously put the Pats quarterback on the turf tonight, it will disrupt the rhythm of an offense that is so dependent upon it. It's the same formula that has been used with great success during the Patriots recent playoff failures by teams like the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, and New York Jets. You can be sure the Broncos have watched tapes of all three of those games and will do everything possible to try and replicate those game plans tonight.
If the defense can keep the game manageable and if Tebow can limit his mistakes on the big stage, this game will be there for the taking in the final 15 minutes. While Tebow has yet to prove himself capable of carrying a team for a full 60 minutes, he has certainly proven capable of pulling through in the closing moments. And if you're the Broncos tonight, with essentially nothing to lose, all you want is a chance in the fourth quarter.
It's the defense that will have to provide that chance.