Setting the scene: Patriots-Broncos
|12.18.11 at 12:23 pm ET|
The forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-50s at kickoff as the 10-3 Patriots can clinch their third straight AFC East title and their ninth in 11 seasons with their sixth straight win. The Patriots also clinch the AFC East with a tie and a Jets’ loss or just a Jets’ loss at Philadelphia.
The Patriots will not have Deion Branch today as he injured his groin last week during the win over the Redskins. Branch was ruled out Saturday night by the team. Patrick Chung didn’t even make the trip to Denver, as he and his injured right foot took in the Celtics scrimmage Friday at TD Garden, staying behind as the team traveled west on Friday afternoon, heading out early to adjust to the time change and altitude.
Also ruled out by the team on Saturday night were offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (right foot), who will miss his third straight game, linebacker Brandon Spikes (right knee), missing his sixth straight game and Shane Vereen (hamstring). That leaves just two players who will be gameday scratches, one of whom will be likely be quarterback Ryan Mallett, inactive since Week 3 against the Bills.
Safety Ross Ventrone was signed off the practice squad on Saturday and will be activated for today’s game. He takes the place defensive back Malcolm Williams, who was released this week. Coach Bill Belichick said Williams was released for this game because they felt other players could better fit their scheme this week.
While the Broncos have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, there is reason to think the Tom Brady could pick apart the secondary. Safety Brian Dawkins (neck) reportedly did not participate in the Broncos walkthrough on Saturday while various reports indicate another safety – David Bruton (Achilles) is also expected to be out. The team signed safety Kyle McCarthy back to active roster Saturday.
The 8-5 Broncos are even hotter, having won six straight entering today’s contest to rise to the top of the AFC West, a game better than the Raiders and two clear of the Chargers.
The Broncos are just one of three teams in NFL history to reel off six or more consecutive wins after starting a season 2-5 or worse. The 2005 Vikings started 2-5 and won six straight, finishing 9-7. The 1970 Bengals started 1-6 and won their last seven to finish 8-6 and capture the AFC Central.
With all the hype over Tebow, don’t overlook the fact that the Broncos have the best rushing attack in the NFL, at 156.2 yards per game. In their last nine games – since making the switch from Kyle Orton to Tebow – they have averaged 187.1 yards per game, the best nine-game rushing stretch in team history.
With all the hype over Tebow, the most important aspect to keep in mind is his performance late in games, where he has led 17 scoring drives in the fourth quarter or overtime over the last nine games. His six career fourth-quarter comebacks represent the most in NFL history by a quarterback in his first 11 starts.
As for the defense, the Broncos are tied for fourth in the NFL with 37 sacks and have at least three in five straight games.