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Bucking the hype on Patriots-Broncos

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 16, 2011 09:11 AM

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For all of us, thankfully, the hype will end at kickoff. Then the Patriots and Denver Broncos will play a game with potentially significant postseason ramifications in which the teams will match both strengths and weaknesses.

This week, for obvious reasons, most all discussion surrounding this game has centered on the quarterbacks. Tom Brady is coming of a game that featured a sidelined explosion during which he openly shouted with a coach. Tim Tebow, meanwhile, continued to turn losses into wins. Here, then, are five questions worth considering when New England and Denver are actually on the field.

1. Which team needs this game more?

If you believe the theory that the more desperate team generally wins, the Broncos may have a slight edge here. But only slight. Denver (8-5) leads the AFC West by a game over the Oakland Raiders (7-6) and by two games over the San Diego Chargers (6-7), and a victory (particularly if coupled with an Oakland loss against Detroit) would move Denver to within a whisker of the division title and, thus, a playoff berth.

The Patriots, meanwhile, will be in the playoffs -- at least barring a Red Soxian collapse. The question is where New England will be seeded. To finish with a top-two seed and, thus, a bye in the first round, the Patriots may need to win out. At the moment, the Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and Houston Texans are all effectively tied atop the AFC with 10-3 records, Baltimore holding the divisional edge over the Pittsburgh Steelers (also 10-3, but a wildcard team) by virtue of two head-to-head victories over the Steelers during the regular season.

If the Patriots slip up this week, they could end up playing three playoff games instead of two. And they could end up opening at home on wildcard weekend against a team like the New York Jets.

2. Can the Patriots stop the run?

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has told us time and time again that stats are for losers -- and maybe they are. But for a team that was once stout against the run for the majority of the Belichick era, the Patriots have sprung some leaks over the last few years. Since the start of the 2009 season, counting playoffs, New England has allowed 4.3 yards per carry, the 13th-worst figure in the league. Maybe that number means nothing. Maybe it means more than we think it does.

Last week, for example, the Washington Redskins gashed the Patriots for a whopping 170 rushing yards and a 5.0 average. Last year, Cleveland ran for a stunning 230 against the Patriots. In New England's last two playoff games -- both losses -- the Patriots have surrendered 354 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

At the moment, as one would expect, Denver has the best rushing attack in the NFL with an average of 156.2 yards per game. Denver's average of 4.7 yards per carry places the Broncos sixth. If the Patriots cannot sufficiently stymie the Denver running attack one way or another -- certainly, a big lead would help -- the next area to watch could become more worrisome.

Which brings us to...

3. What's worse -- the Denver passing offense or the New England passing defense?

Or maybe we should refer to them as the resistible force and the moveable object.

Tebow's heroics certainly have been newsworthy, but his passing performance in the first three quarters of all games has bordered on the inept. In eight games as a starter, in the first three quarters, Tebow is 43 for 111 (a 37.8 completion percentage) for a measly 520 yards. (That translates into 65 per game.) His passer rating is an abysmal 65.1, which is lower than Brady's completion percentage (66.1) for the year.

Of course, when the game has been on the line, Tebow has magically turned into Joe Montana, posting a 60.9 completion percentage and a rating of 107.9. Nonetheless, the fact exists that he has been a dreadful passer for roughly 75 percent of every game in which he has played.

The issue, naturally, is that the Patriots haven't been able to cover anybody this season. New England has allowed more passing yards than any team in the league. The Patriots have allowed opponents to complete 63.7 percent of all passes, a number that is fourth-worst in the entire NFL. And based on opponent passer rating, New England has one of the 10 worst defenses in football.

If the Broncos can pass on the Patriots, anybody can.

4. Is Denver's defense really that good?

For all the hype the Denver defense has been getting, here's an amusing truth: since Tebow became quarterback, the Patriots have actually allowed fewer points per game (19.9) than the Broncos have (20.3). Admittedly, Denver's numbers are skewed by games against Detroit (45 points allowed) and Minnesota (32), but the truth remains.

So why are people talking so much about the Denver defense? Because in five of the last eight games, the Broncos have allowed 15, 10, 13, 13 and 10 points. Of course, those performances have come against Miami, Kansas City, the New York Jets, San Diego and Chicago. All but San Diego have had average to poor quarterback play and the Chargers were in the midst of a six-game losing streak.

For the year, Denver actually has allowed more passing touchdowns (22) than the Patriots have (21). Based on defensive passer rating, the Broncos rank as the fourth-worst pass defense in the NFL; the Patriots, by comparison, are ninth.

5. Is Matt Prater really a secret weapon?

After making a 59-yard kick to force overtime last week against Chicago, Prater made a 51-yarder to win the game. That leaves little doubt about the strength of Prater's leg, particularly in the altitude of Denver, but a more detailed look at his performance this year reveals quite a bit of inconsistency.

Of the 32 NFL kickers who have attempted at least 15 field goals this season, Prater ranks a dreadful 30th in percentage of kicks made. And before anyone suggests that Prater's misses have been the result of long kicks, last week's performance made him 3 of 4 this season from 50 yards or more, a conversion rate of 75 percent that actually puts him in the top 10 from that distance.

Translation: Prater has made the long kicks and missed many of the short ones.

How that translates on Sunday remains to be seen, though it does leave Denver with one obviously favorable scenario. If the game is close late, Prater has the leg to take pressure off Tebow because he can put the Broncos in field goal range by just reaching the New England 40.

Assuming, of course, the Broncos can get that far.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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