Denver at New England: Five Players To Watch

As originally posted here.

The last time these two teams met, the New England Patriots snapped the Denver Broncos’ six-game winning streak, crushing them 41-23. The Broncos since backed themselves into the Playoffs dropping the next two, suffering a worse defeat at the hands of Buffalo, 40-14, and a yawner against Kansas City, 7-3, to close the season. The 8-8 Broncos were severe underdogs against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round, but quarterback Tim Tebow closed the game out in overtime on the first play hitting receiver Demaryius Thomas on a 80-yard strike for the go-ahead score, winning 29-23. The Broncos face a more daunting task in coming back to Foxboro for the Divisional Round against Patriots. Here are the five players who will make or break the game.

5) Willis McGahee

The main keys for Denver to win this game are to keep it close and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands. The Broncos have shown early on that they can go toe-to-toe with the Patriots. The Broncos were up 16-7 at the start of the second quarter before the Patriots took control of the game and advantage of Denver’s miscues on offense.

The Broncos’ league-leading rushing attack is primarily due to the work of running back Willis McGahee and quarterback Tim Tebow. They’ve combined for 1,859 rushing yards for the season. McGahee himself rushed for 1,199 yards and four touchdowns, and needs to be the one that Tebow leans on to maintain ball control. In order for the Broncos to win, they will probably need more than 70 yards on 7 carries from him as indicated in their last contest at Foxboro. It didn’t help his production that Tebow ran for 93 yards and two scores on 7 carries. If the Patriots force Tebow to carry the entire game on his back, you can expect to see more turnovers. Brady is more capable of overcoming them than Tebow is.

4) The Patriots’ Tight Ends: Aaron Hernandez/Rob Gronkowski

It is kind of hard to talk about one without the other because they are both equally deadly, but they inhabit the same position: tight end. Much like the Saints’ Drew Brees has been punishing opponents with Jimmy Graham, Brady’s been blessed with two pass-catching threats who combine and account for 2,237 of Brady’s 5,235 passing yards, this season.

The combination of Hernandez and Gronkowski combined for 182, which was over half of Brady’s 320 yards in their December 13 match-up. As hard as it sounds, shutting these two down might not even be enough as Brady also has threats in Wes Welker and Chad Ochocinco, who help stretch the field to set up their tight ends.

3) Demaryius Thomas

Let’s get this straight. Broncos are successful because they’re a running team. If anyone ever gave Tebow a target that makes him a quarterback not just a glorified running back, it is Demaryius Thomas who came up big against the Steelers last week. He managed to get 204 yards receiving on four catches. Granted one of the catches was for the 80-yard game-winning score and was his only touchdown, 204 yards for a receiver is nothing to scoff at. While he pretty much disappeared against the Bills and Chiefs, he’s on this list for that one reason.

Ironically enough, he led all Denver receivers against New England in their match-up when he caught seven passes for 116 yards. While the Patriots’ secondary have been spotty at times, the Broncos could use that to their advantage. Most are expecting the Patriots to isolate the run, but a few well-placed shots could keep them on their toes. If he is not nearing ten catches or closing in on 100 yards, then the Patriots have this one, hands down. This is especially more so now than ever with leading receiver Eric Decker not expected to play on Saturday.

2) Tom Brady

The guy’s been doing this for so long. Any time you have this guy at the helm, you know you are always a contender. The reason why he is No. 2 and not No. 1 is that the Patriots are built as a team as amazingly enough not just around Tom Brady as Matt Cassel showed that in 2008 (missing Playoffs but finishing with 11-5 record) unlike a certain Colts franchise that showed they were really nothing without Peyton Manning. While you can’t say that Brian Hoyer is the same talent that Cassel was, they would still be the favorites given how well Bill Belichick runs things.

No doubt everything in the Patriots’ offense runs through Tom Brady. No matter what shortcomings the defense has or lack of an elite running attack, Brady sees them through each and every year in the clutch. Like his elite contemporaries in Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, he is going to get around at least 300 yards in almost every game he’s in. The only thing you can do is to capitalize on any mistakes you might force from him and minimize his opportunities with ball control offense.

You don’t win three Super Bowls and two league MVPs without showing the attention to detail Brady shown over the years. I believe the Patriots are favored even without Brady at the helm given the experience, but he makes this a potential rout.

1) Tim Tebow

This is a no-brainer. The Patriots can win this without Brady. There is NO way the Broncos win this without Tebow. Make no mistake. He IS their offense both running and (miniscule) passing. If his 316 passing yards last week is any indication, it makes him the big wild card this game and decides its fate. As much as people want to make about his 316 passing yards, would people make as big deal if the Patriots happen to produce 666 total yards of offense?

Tebow is unique because much of his offense is based off of the run and a number of Wildcat-type formations. He leads the team with rushing touchdowns at six which ironically enough makes for one-third of his touchdowns. He passed for 1,729 yards for the season, completing 46.5 percent of his passes and 12 touchdowns. His lack of passing accuracy is more than made up with his running abilities.

If Tebow is to succeed, the Broncos need to stick to what worked for them in the first quarter and play a ball control game to minimize turnovers. Leaning more on running back Willis McGahee should help Tebow alleviate some pressure. If the Broncos get into a shootout with the Patriots, they risk becoming reckless and playing into the Patriots’ hands. It lies in Tebow. As well as the Broncos’ defense has played, they can only do so much especially against a team like the Patriots. It will take a near repeat performance of his career game last week in order to have a chance at winning.

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About Tom

Tom Chang is a freelance journalist with a background in multimedia journalism and web publishing. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St.Petersburg. He graduated in 2004 with a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communications at USF Tampa. Tom's interests include a little bit of everything from entertainment to sports. He also wishes to delve into creative writing writing sci-fi/fantasy stories. Tom was recently the Online Editor for USF St. Petersburg's the Crow's Nest, he joined the staff in January 2010 where he started freelance writing, photographing, copy editing and later became a staff writer. Tom’s freelance experience in journalism amassed a wide range of companies including Creative Loafing, The Focus Magazine, Lutz News, Examiner.com, and Tampa Tribune.
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