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After a week of waiting, the New England Patriots (13-3) will finally return to action this Saturday, hosting Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos (9-8) in the AFC Divisional Round at 8:00 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
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In Sunday’s Wild Card matchup, the Broncos shocked the world by upsetting the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 in overtime at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colo.
Tim Tebow continued to build his legacy, tossing for 316 and two touchdowns on 10-21 passing. Tebow also added 50 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
After a brutal first quarter in which Denver accumulated just eight yards of offense, the Broncos outscored Pittsburgh 20-0 in the second to build a 20-6 halftime advantage. The Steelers trailed by 10 with under 10 minutes to play, but Ben Roethlisberger led a pair of scoring drives, including a 31-yard strike to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:48 remaining to equalize the contest 23-23.
In overtime, Denver won the toss and elected to receive. Despite the unnecessarily complex overtime rules, Tebow ended the game on the first play of the extra session, connecting with second-year receiver Demarius Thomas on an 80-yard touchdown pass to end the game and send the Broncos to Gillette Stadium.
In their regular season finale, the Patriots appeared sluggish to begin the game. Buffalo jumped out to an early 21-0 first quarter lead, but Coach Bill Belichick’s defense clamped down, shutting the Bills out the rest of the way to win 49-21 and clinch home field advantage.
Tom Brady passed for 338 yards and a trio of touchdowns on 23-35 passing, while the defense forced a quartet of Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions to provide to the final margin.
To say Denver has Belichick’s number would be a severe understatement. Since 2001, the Broncos are 6-3 against New England, including a 27-13 Divisional Round win during the 2006 postseason. The last time the Patriots played host to Denver was in 2008, in which Matt Cassel helped lead the team to a 41-7 slashing on Monday Night Football.
In their last meeting, the Patriots squashed all the Tebow hype, who had won six-games in a row, winning a key matchup in Denver 41-23. Denver jumped out to a 16-7 lead early, but New England settled down and contained the Broncos the rest of the game.
Tom Brady finished the game with 320 yards and four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing), on 23-34 passing. Chad Ochocinco recorded his first touchdown in a New England uniform, a first quarter 33-yard strike, while the Patriots dominated both the time-of-possesion battle (33:41-26:19) and turnover margin (3-0).
The Patriots clinched the AFC East with their triumph.
Willis McGahee vs. New England Defensive Line
In the first matchup between these two, the Denver running game appeared unstoppable en route to 167 first quarter yards and an early 16-7 lead. The Broncos moved the ball at will, receiving contributions from Willis McGahee (prior to an injury which sidelined him), Lance Ball and Tim Tebow.
Despite the glorification of Tebow, McGahee is the cornerstone of the Broncos’ rushing attack. It was evident Pittsburgh game planned around the former Hurricane, and McGahee’s presence has been vital to Denver’s resurrection. If the New England defensive front allows considerable chunks of yards to the Denver ground game, Tebow and the Broncos offense will keep Tom Brady off the field, mitigating the New England passing attack.
Aaron Hernandez/Rob Gronkowski vs. Denver linebackers
Without a doubt, the combination of sophomore tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski is one of the most effective pairs that Tom Brady has ever had. The duo combined for 169 receptions for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns on the year, making them one of the most formidable matchups in the league.
In their Week 15 showdown at Denver, Hernandez and Gronkowski once again led the offense. Hernandez finished the contest with nine receptions for 129 yards and a one-yard score, while Gronkowski ended the evening with four receptions for 53 yards.
The addition of Josh McDaniels (the man who made Ben Watson a serviceable option while at the OC helm in 2007-08 seasons), will be influential in exploiting this matchup. If the Patriots can have success attacking the middle with Gronkowski and the outside with Hernandez, New England should have no issues laying Tebow and the Broncos to rest.
Expect Denver to hang tough through the first half, running on several early downs in order to kill the clock and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines. The Broncos should be able to keep up in the first half and be within striking distance at the intermission, but the Patriots have far too much firepower for Denver to contain in the second half.
New England 37, Denver 20