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Scouting report

Patriots at Broncos

(File/Jack Dempsey/Associated Press)
By Jim McBride
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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Today, 4:15 p.m., Channel 4 (Line: Patriots by 7 1/2)

When the Patriots run

Somebody needs to jump-start this attack. It’s been weeks since New England’s ground game has been a threat - though ever-cuddly Danny Woodhead did have some promising runs last week. Woodhead uses superior instincts and quickness to move the ball. He’s small enough to slip through tiny cracks and slick enough to avoid defenders and big hits. He’ll never be a bell cow but he provides excellent pop and energy. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (that toe still must be bothering him) still runs hard but doesn’t hit the hole with the same quickness. He rarely gets knocked backward but he rarely rips off those 5-plus-yard bursts anymore, either. The Stevan Ridley mystery continues. Why this youthful, high-energy tailback doesn’t get a chance to establish a rhythm is perplexing. Ridley may not pick up the blitz as adeptly as Kevin Faulk, but the rookie deserves the carries that Faulk is getting because the once-valuable veteran looks slow. New England’s interior three hasn’t been getting a great push. Guards Logan Mankins (he will hit anything and anyone at any time) and Brian Waters (he has tailed off after a great early season) have to get to the second level and get their hands on the linebackers, particularly Wesley Woodyard (good instincts and speed) and D.J. Williams (explosive tackler).

EDGE: Patriots

When the Patriots pass

Tom Brady will have to be at his quick-trigger best as he faces one of the league’s top pass-rushing tandems in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Dumervil explodes off the edge and never gives up on a play. Miller has an explosive first step and uses his elite quickness and impressive power to overwhelm blockers and collapse the pocket. Brady lacks the agility to ever be a true scrambler, but he will step up on outside rushers and sidestep bull rushers to extend plays. Wes Welker uses his strong hands and quick feet to get open in a flash and provide Brady with a fast option. However, Deion Branch, who is at his best on intermediate routes, is out today. What’s left to say about Rob Gronkowski? The 6-foot-6-inch monster has developed into the league’s best tight end. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez has an uncanny knack of getting open, and though he will drop the occasional catchable pass, his after-the-catch skills more than make up for it. Denver has a pair of veteran corners still playing at a high level. Champ Bailey has the speed and mirror skills to shut down anyone, while Andre Goodman has elite closing speed. Safeties Brian Dawkins and Quinton Carter are reliable.

EDGE: Patriots

When the Broncos run

Somewhat lost amid Tebowmania has been the renaissance of tailback Willis McGahee. Though age and injuries have robbed McGahee of some of his explosiveness, the 6-foot, 235-pounder still is a powerful runner with above-average straight-line speed. Attitude, toughness, and consistency have long been the knocks on McGahee, but they haven’t been this season. He shows up every week, runs with a chip on his shoulder, and has been finishing runs with authority. Lance Ball (5-9, 219) is a poor man’s Ray Rice, small but thick. Ball runs with good balance, will burst through arm tacklers, and will dip his shoulders and drive his muscular frame into defenders. Tim Tebow adds a special dimension to the running game. The Broncos run a hybrid option/pro offense and Tebow will make yards on designed runs and broken plays. Tebow has great instincts and vision, tremendous lower-body strength (he can push the pile like a fullback), and is among the more competitive players in the game. He has superb toughness and no matter how much punishment he takes, he will bounce back up. New England’s front seven struggled against the run last week. Tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love (he actually looks bigger than Vince) have to control the gaps and allow the linebackers to swarm the ball.

EDGE: Broncos

When the Broncos pass

There are many ways to describe Tim Tebow - pretty passer isn’t one of them. Tebow’s throwing motion is ugly (he looks like a righthander trying to throw with his left). He works out of the shotgun, so there’s minimal footwork to set up, but he has such a long delivery that it seemingly takes forever for him to get rid of the ball. He has a tendency to give up on his receivers quickly and seems more comfortable running rather than trying to find his second and third options. Eric Decker has developed into a reliable receiver and one Tebow trusts. Decker is fearless and will come back to bail out Tebow. He is prone to lapses in concentration and will drop catchable balls. Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 235) is blessed with a nice combination of size and speed. He gets somewhat lost in this offense because he is an outside-the-numbers receiver who does his best work downfield, and because Tebow doesn’t throw a great deep ball. Tailbacks Willis McGahee and Lance Ball are solid but not spectacular receivers. New England’s torn and tattered secondary will give up huge chunks of yards and it won’t be shocking if Tebow sets career highs in completions and yards.

EDGE: Broncos

BRONCOS’ KEY PLAYER: Elvis Dumervil

Sure Tim Tebow is important, but this pass-rushing savage is the heart and soul of one of the league’s most improved defenses. And he never leaves the building until the show’s over.

How he beats you: With an elite combination of speed and power. Dumervil is a relentless, aggressive pass rusher with an explosive first step and a high motor. He plays bigger than his 5-11, 260-pound frame.

How to shut him down: By establishing a ground game. Dumervil will struggle against the run and can get lost and overpowered by bigger offensive linemen. He lacks recognition skills, too.

BRONCOS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:

1. Start fast: Late-game comebacks have been Tim Tebow’s claim to fame. Truth be told, he hasn’t played well the first three quarters. That has to change.

2. Play the percentages: Tebow is at his best on short passes. So call a lot of them to keep the ball moving and prevent him from taking a physical beating.

3. Mug shots: The Broncos must, must, must get physical at the line with Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski to prevent Tom Brady from shredding the secondary.

PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:

1. Surprise attack: New England needs to get balanced on offense, so try running out of passing formations. Spreading the defense creates room and lanes for the backs.

2. Hit parade: Defending the option is tough. The best plan is to pulverize the quarterback on every snap - whether he has the ball or not. He will get rid of the ball quicker, guaranteed.

3. Confusion reigns: Disguise coverages until the last second to keep Tim Tebow guessing. He can improvise with his legs. With his arm? Not so much.

Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 20

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