The seeding might suggest otherwise, but make no mistake, the Denver Broncos pulled off a huge upset last week when they took down the Steelers. Tim Tebow furthered his own enigmatic legacy by finally showing some ability as a passer, and made Pittsburgh look foolish for daring him to beat them through the air.
Tebow notched over 300 passing yards on just 10 completions, most of which went to Demaryius Thomas as the pair victimized Ike Taylor, and the Broncos earned themselves a rematch with the Patriots in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
The Patriots, by virtue of locking up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, earned themselves a bye for the Wild Card weekend along with the benefit of facing a team they have already defeated this season. New England has been riding their offense all year while the defense has hemorrhaged yardage at a record-setting rate. Despite all of this, they still managed to win 13 games and look as competent as any team in the AFC. The Broncos, on the other hand, have had to rely on their defense with smoke and mirrors on offense to get the job done. Everybody knows what they will get from the Patriots and their offense, but the Broncos and theirs remain a much more volatile proposition, who could just as easily struggle to put up any points as they could post explosive plays like last week.
Last Meeting: New England 41 – Denver 23 (Week 15)
The Denver offense actually managed to look pretty good in this game, but their defense was uncharacteristically and completely overwhelmed by the Patriots as Tom Brady threw for 320 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Aaron Hernandez in particular took the Broncos to task, catching nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Hernandez racked up 88 yards more than any other Patriots receiver and forced three missed tackles from the Broncos. Denver’s defense, which had been carrying the team for the run of games prior to this Week 15 encounter, failed to hold up its end of the bargain this time. Von Miller was blanked as a pass rusher for the first time all season, failing to register a single pressure from his 25 pass-rushing snaps.
Denver simply can’t afford to have its defense go AWOL in the same way it did the first time the two sides met if they are to have any chance second time around.
Tim Tebow vs. The Patriots Scheme and Secondary
Tebow made the plays he had to make against Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ defensive game plan wasn’t necessarily a bad one to begin with. Their ultimate undoing was failing to adjust it at any stage in the game even when it became clear that Tebow was hitting the passes they were banking on him being unable to make. Prior to that game, Tebow had shown very little to suggest he could make enough of those throws to get the win even if a team sold out against the run and the option attack and presented the deep shots to him. New England is unlikely to attack Tebow in the same way, but rather sit back in coverage and keep everything in front of them. This time they will dare Tebow to be accurate in order to move the chains and avoid game-changing mistakes.
Last week, despite racking up 316 yards, Tebow completed only 48% of his passes, and the ones he missed were the underneath–and largely easier–passes. The Patriots are likely to force Tebow to make those routine throws in order to move the chains, and take away the single-coverage deep shots he killed the Steelers with. The Patriots, however, have given up passing yardage consistently all season and don’t exactly have a stellar record at limiting the opposition’s passing attack.
The other item to watch will be how the Patriots generate pressure on the Broncos passer. Pittsburgh got a disappointing amount of it in the Wild Card game but when they blitzed, Tebow’s QB rating nose-dived 90 points from 141.4 to 52.8.
Von Miller vs. Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder
In the first game between these two sides, Miller was ineffective as he struggled to come to terms with playing with a cast on his right hand. He had been as destructive as any pass-rusher in the league before his injury, but the cast left him unable to use his hands effectively as both a pass-rusher and against the run. As a result, he spent much of this game being pin-balled inside by Patriot blockers. Miller has been able to come to grips with playing recently as his cast has reduced in size and allowed him greater leverage with that injured hand. If Miller can approach his earlier form, he’s a far different prospect to the Patriots edge than he was in the first game.
For the Patriots, Sebastian Vollmer has resumed practicing after having played only 346 snaps this season, and his return will likely push Solder to the sixth offensive lineman/heavy tight end role which New England will use. Vollmer and Matt Light have both graded well as pass protectors this season (+2.3 and +3.8, respectively), combining to allow just seven sacks and nine more quarterback knockdowns. Whether these Patriot blockers can effectively neutralize Miller will go a long way to determining the kind of day Tom Brady can have in the pocket.
Chris Harris Jr. vs. Wes Welker
In the first encounter between these two teams it was Hernandez that did the damage, and the Broncos are likely to focus on trying to take him away here. Wes Welker (+21.3 receiving) in his role in the slot is virtually uncoverable in today’s NFL, but the Broncos will likely try to do it not just with one man. They will also utilize an undrafted rookie in the form of Chris Harris Jr. Harris (+5.4 coverage) was the only undrafted rookie to make the Broncos’ 53-man roster coming out of camp and he has been a revelation for them as their nickel corner behind starters Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman. The Broncos will likely keep him in man coverage on Welker as much as they can, and that’s a tough ask for any player.
Welker racked up 1,573 yards on 122 receptions this season, averaging more than seven receptions and 98 yards per game. Harris, for his part, has never allowed more than 98 receiving yards to a team this season. The closest he came was allowing 86 to the Vikings in Week 13–85 of which came on four passes to Percy Harvin. Welker is rarely left out of the Patriots’ game plan for long, and he is instrumental in that offense being able to move the chains and stay on the field. Harris is vital to the Broncos’ ability to get them off the field and getting their offense the ball back.