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Five Early Thoughts on the Patriots, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels going against Tim Tebow and the Broncos next Saturday night

01.08.12 at 8:24 pm ET
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Five very early thoughts on a Patriots-Broncos divisional playoff game, set for Saturday night at Gillette Stadium:

1. The first time these two teams met was back on Dec. 18, when Tim Tebow guided the Broncos to an early lead by running all over the Patriots. (Denver had 15 carries for 167 yards in the first quarter and a 16-7 lead.) But the Patriots were able to keep their heads about them, step back, make the adjustments and outscore the Broncos 34-7 down the stretch. (It was the second of four straight come-from-behind wins down the stretch for the Patriots, and the fourth-biggest comeback of the season for New England.) Tebow finished 11-for-22 for 194 yards. He had no passing touchdowns and no interceptions, but one rushing touchdown and 93 yards on the ground. In contrast, Tom Brady went 23-for-34 for 320 yards and two touchdowns.

2. The rehiring of Josh McDaniels has already started to pay dividends. There may not be anyone currently outside of the Broncos organization who has a better handle on the strengths and weaknesses of Tebow than New England’€™s new offensive assistant. McDaniels, who coached Denver for the 2009 season and most of the 2010 season, moved up in the 2009 draft to use a first-round pick on Tebow in his first year as a head coach. And while McDaniels was fired on Dec. 6, 2010, two weeks before Tebow made his first start with the Broncos, the two had already managed to forge a pretty close relationship, one borne out of the fact that just about no one in the Denver area wanted either one of them back in the spring of 2009. You can bet that before Demaryius Thomas crossed the goal line on Sunday evening, McDaniels had a full dossier on Tebow on Bill Belichick‘€™s desk.

3. Gap discipline. Gap discipline. Gap discipline. One of the things that the Patriots were able to do an excellent job with over the final three quarters of the last time these two teams met was maintain their gap discipline, something an opposing scout told us as being important when it came to holding Tebow in check. Look for New England to use that as a point of emphasis once again this week.

4. Looking back to that first contest between the two teams last month, the game between the Patriots and Broncos last month turned into the second quarter. Three plays in, the Broncos, who spent much of the first 15 minutes doing whatever they wanted to do to the New England defense, were facing a fourth-and-1 at the New England eight-yard line with a 13-7 lead. But faced with the prospect of delivering the killing blow to a weary Patriots’€™ defense, Denver coach John Fox instead opted for a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, and Matt Prater connected n a 26-yarder, making it 16-7. The Patriots, who were staggered at that point, took advantage of the opening, quickly turning momentum in their direction. They used three Denver turnovers in the second quarter — and a successful fourth-down conversion of their own — to put up 20 points of their own in the second quarter on the way to a 41-23 win over the Broncos.

5. Another thing that stood out from that game was the fact that the Patriots’€™ offensive line was able to do an excellent job keeping the Denver pass rushers in check. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady was only pressured on six of his 36 dropbacks, and linebacker Von Miller was held without a sack, quarterback hit or pressure for the first time in his young career. There were some savage shots (Elvis Dumervil delivered one of the best hits all season on a sack of Brady, while the Broncos had two sacks as a team to go along with three quarterback hits), but for the most part, the New England offensive line did a very good job turning away the Denver pass rush. One of the reasons the Patriots were able to have success keeping Brady upright in that game was their use of tight end Rob Gronkowski as a blocker more than a pass catcher. Gronkowski, who had four catches for 53 yards that afternoon against the Broncos (statistically, it was one of the worst games of the season), was on the field for 76 snaps, and on 41 of those, he was a blocker (PFF has him listed as a blocker on 39 running plays and two pass plays). It marked the second time this season where he spent more than 40 snaps in a game as a blocker, with the other time coming in the game against the first game against the Jets where he had four catches for 31 yards and no touchdowns.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Demaryius Thomas, Elvis Dumervil, John Fox
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