The 2009 Baltimore Ravens. The 2010 New York Jets.
Both possessed less than stellar offenses led by less than stellar quarterbacks, but both had dominant defenses that were able to stifle Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense and oust them from the playoffs.
Sound like anyone we know?
The talk this week has been almost entirely about Tim Tebow and his incredible rise from third string quarterback to fourth quarter savant, but lost in the shuffle has been the fact that the Denver Broncos, as a complete team, are very similar to both the Jets and Ravens teams that unceremoniously bounced the Pats from the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. That's bad news for a Patriots team that is still trying to prove that they can win a game against a team like this when it matters.
So what makes the Broncos such a nightmare for the Patriots?
For starters, since Tebow was installed as the quarterback, the defense has played absolutely lights out. During the teams' six-game winning streak, the team has surrendered less than 14 points four times, and only twice in that span has a team reached the end zone more than once. Led by the stellar linebacker tandem of rookie of the year candidate Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard and the ever reliable Champ Bailey in the secondary, the Broncos have been among the best passing defenses in the NFL the last six weeks. Only the Minnesota Vikings found any consistent success throwing the ball against them.
To be fair, the Broncos haven't seen an offense quite like the one they'll see Sunday since Green Bay effortlessly put up 49 points back in early October, but as any rational person will tell you, its almost pointless to talk about this team B.T. (Before Tebow).
The Patriots problem in this game and similar games in the past few years has been that when they face a team with an upper class defense, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker haven't been able to cover for their own impossibly porous defense by simply outscoring them. The Jets and Ravens offenses were never going to be confused with the 2007 Patriots, but playing against this defense, they were made to look, at the very least, above average.
Similarly, this Broncos offense is certainly nothing spectacular, but it has shown flashes of competence, particularly late in games. It's fair to assume that, faced with a defense as mediocre as the Patriots, Tebow and the Broncos should have a little more success earlier in the game. Coach John Fox will likely employ the same strategy of pounding the ball on the ground with Willis McGahee and short passing that has so frustrated the Patriots over the past few seasons. Even worse for the Patriots, Fox has begun to take the reins off of Tebow in the passing game over the past couple of games, and will likely allow him to challenge Devin McCourty and the atrocious New England secondary down the field on at least a few occasions.
When it comes to talking about the Patriots defense, fans and media have largely gone the toddler route of sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and pretending not to hear or see the reality that they just aren't very good. Make no mistake, if this game comes down to the final four or five minutes, the last thing Patriots fans will want to see is their defense on the field against a quarterback who's as hot as any in the league right now.
In addition to the match-up problems that the Broncos provide in this particular game, the Broncos have also been a long term problem for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Brady and Belichick are just 1-6 against Denver since 2001 in games that Brady was the quarterback and have included some of the worst games of his career, the 2006 divisional round playoff game in particular.
While this may not be an actual playoff game, Mile High Stadium will have that feel, particularly for the Broncos who are trying to erase a 1-4 start that preceded Tebow's ascension to starting quarterback. It's likely that the Broncos can only afford, at most, one more loss the rest of the way in order to make the playoffs. The Patriots meanwhile, are trying to keep pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens for the top seed in the AFC so that they can avoid any potential road trips in the playoffs.
Many fans have declared the Broncos to be among the luckiest teams in the history of professional sports. The reality is that, while Tebow will probably never be the kind of quarterback that John Elway was for the Broncos, he simply plays as hard as anyone who's ever played the game and inspires his teammates to do the same. This is a team playing with a ton of momentum, and represents the kind of team that the Patriots have mightily struggled against over the past few seasons.
Should the Patriots find a way to stunt the Broncos momentum, it would go a long way towards quieting some of their critics (namely, me) who question whether they can beat a team that is able to slow their high powered offense and win a game on the backs of their defense.
In order to do that they'll have to buck a lot of negative history, both short term and long term. One thing is for sure though: It will be great television.