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Time is ripe for Patriots to capitalize

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  January 9, 2012 09:06 AM

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300tebow.jpg"He showed he's a quarterback in the NFL, case closed. They say he couldn't throw. They said we wouldn't be able to run the ball on them. We did that. I wonder what they're going to say next week."
- Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee, commenting on the play of teammate and quarterback Tim Tebow following yesterday's playoff upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Patriots, presumably, will not make the same mistake the Pittsburgh Steelers made, which is to say the Patriots will not dare the Denver Broncos to throw the ball deep. Bill Belichick is far more likely to make the Broncos methodically drive down the field, asking Tebow to demonstrate the one thing he still has failed to show.

Consistency.

And so, the road to Indianapolis just became a little clearer, New England no longer required to deal with Pittsburgh this postseason as the pieces continue falling neatly into place. There is hardly any shame in that. On Saturday night, the Patriots seemed destined to face both the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens if they are to return to the Super Bowl this year. Now the Steelers are out of the picture, felled by a poorly conceived game plan and a young, unrelenting quarterback who continues to leave doubters in his wake.

Say this for the irresistible Mr. Tebow: the Steelers dared him to beat them deep - and beat them he did. Prior to yesterday, the mighty Pittsburgh defense had surrendered two pass plays all season of at least 40 yards. Yesterday, the Steelers allowed four, culminating in an 80-yard strike from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas that ended Pittsburgh's season on the first play of overtime.

In fact, Tebow's gains through the air yesterday looked a little like a Powerball ticket: 21, 51, 30, 58, 6, 40, 13, 6, 15, 80. Add in a 32-yard interference penalty on the human top known as Ike Taylor and Tebow's 316-yard passing day actually becomes a 348-yard performance, no matter Tebow's completion percentage or throwing mechanics.

Indeed, with those numbers, the Broncos hit the lottery.

Jackpot.

The Patriots will be a far more complicated challenge for the Broncos, if for no other reason than a New England offense guided by Tom Brady. The Patriots scored 41 points in a victory at Denver last month and are not likely to stall the way the Steelers did yesterday. Tom Brady's left shoulder aside, he is far healthier than Ben Roethlisberger is, which is why New England has been installed as the favorite by 13 1/2 points, give or take.

Let's say that again: depending on the specific oddsmaker, the Patriots are bigger favorites in this game than they have been in any postseason affair since Super Bowl XLII. They are clearly the superior team. Add in the fact that New England is playing at home coming off a bye, and the Patriots should absolutely, positively be hosting the AFC Championship game in Foxborough on Jan. 22.

If that's presumptuous, so be it. The Patriots went 13-3 this season and were the No. 1 seed in the conference. The Broncos went 8-8, the worst record among all playoff participants. Were it not for the fact that Denver plays in the anemic AFC West, the Broncos would have been home watching yesterday.

If you believe in earning your way to the playoffs, maybe they should have been.

Of course, we all know the story line with this Patriots team, which seems (on paper) terribly imbalanced. This year, especially, New England was borderline historic on both sides of the ball. (One good, one bad.) Since the start of the 2008 season, the Patriots have really been no more effective or successful than the Atlanta Falcons, who have basically averaged 11 wins per season. Both teams went 0-2 in the postseason right up until yesterday, when the Falcons threw up on themselves yet again while managing two points - yes, two - in a 24-2 defeat at the hands of the New York Giants.

That made Atlanta 0-3 in the playoffs under quarterback Matt Ryan, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound NFL prototype who now has one fewer postseason victory on his resume than the unconventional Tebow does.

In New England, once again, the standards have long been different. Due to the success they shared together in the early part of this millennium, Belichick and Brady are regarded as failures if they end up with anything less than a championship. They wouldn't be who they are if they didn't regard themselves the same way. Now the Patriots are set to begin the postseason anew with what looks like a seeming layup, a relatively mediocre Denver team that just upended one of the two remaining clubs to defeat the Patriots this year.

In the NFL this January, the field is now down to eight.

The Steelers are dead.

And the ball, quite literally, is about to be placed squarely in the Patriots' hands.

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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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