The Patriots are still holding out hope for the
eventual return of LB Brandon Spikes and S Patrick Chung, but they're
also prepared for the possibility that neither will play, which means
they'll bring their usual lineup into Denver in search of a rare win in
the Mile High City.
The key to the defensive game plan will be containment,
specifically geared toward QB Tim Tebow, who is 7-1 as a starter and is
causing havoc with his legs -- perhaps more so than with his arm.
--K Stephen Gostkowski kicked the longest field
goal of his career in Denver, a 53-yarder in October 2009 in a game New
--OLB Rob Ninkovich figures to be a key part of
this week's game plan since the Patriots will place a strong emphasis
on containing QB Tim Tebow, which includes setting the edge.
--TE Aaron Hernandez attended the University of
Florida with Denver QB Tim Tebow and caught 111 passes with 12
touchdowns during his time as a Gator.
--LB Tracy White remains atop the team's leader
board in special teams' tackles with 14, one tackle ahead of S Matthew
--LB Jerod Mayo leads the Patriots in overall
tackles with 75, one ahead of CB Devin McCourty; the latter has 10 more
solo tackles (57) than Mayo (47).
--S Patrick Chung missed practice Wednesday due to
a foot injury. Though he hasn't played in five weeks, he had been
practicing, indicating he was much closer to returning to the field.
Wednesday's news appears to be a setback in his recovery.
--OL Sebastian Vollmer remained out of practice
Wednesday. He has missed the last two games with foot and back injuries
and figures to be out of the lineup again on Sunday.
--LB Brandon Spikes practiced Wednesday, a trend
that picked up late last week despite the fact Spikes' knee injury kept
him out of the lineup against Washington. This could be the week Spikes
--S James Ihedigbo will continue to serve as the
"quarterback" of the defense Sunday if injured S Patrick Chung remains
out of the lineup. Ihedigbo has battled injuries of his own, but has
become a constant in the lineup since Chung went down in November.
--OT Nate Solder, who has started 10 of 13 games
in his rookie season, figures to be the starter at right tackle again
this weekend barring a quick recovery by OL Sebastian Vollmer.
Where do we start? These days, all conversations revolving around the
Broncos begin and end with Tim Tebow, who is 7-1 as a starter and has
led a revival in Denver. The key to stopping him is, well, there really
hasn't been a key developed yet. The fact is, Tebow's performance,
while looking pedestrian at times, seems to elevate with the game on
The Patriots might not pay much respect to his
arm, but they should, given their inability to stop anybody in the
passing game, and that goes for the likes of Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman in recent weeks. On top of that, they have to be wary of
Tebow's ability to create plays with his legs; it's become such a
trademark in his performance that Chicago LB Brian Urlacher derisively
referred to Tebow as a "good running back" following the Broncos' win
over the Bears last weekend.
Yet it's not all Tebow, all the time. The Broncos'
defense has picked things up of late, so QB Tom Brady and the offense
needs to remain the well-oiled machine it's been all season, and that
means another healthy dose of TE Rob Gronkowski, the NFL's most
unstoppable force and all-time single-season touchdown king for tight
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots LB Jerod Mayo vs. Broncos QB Tim Tebow --
This is a dangerous idea. One of the options in stopping Tebow and
limiting his ability to scramble might be to put a spy on him
defensively. Mayo would figure to get the responsibility based on his
tackling ability, but paying too much attention to Tebow could leave
the Patriots vulnerable in other areas. This wouldn't be a full-time
responsibility, but Mayo might be asked at times to keep all eyes on
Broncos RB Willis McGahee vs. Patriots LB
Dane Fletcher -- With so much attention being focused on Tim
Tebow, this could lead to another matchup problem. The Patriots might
be forced to play more 3-4 than 4-3, using Jerod Mayo as a spy for
Tebow. Under that scenario, Fletcher might be left alone to handle the
running game, and that is a matchup that would likely favor McGahee
despite his poor showing last weekend against Chicago.
Patriots CB Devin McCourty vs. Broncos WR
Eric Decker -- Until McCourty is no longer given first-rate
assignments, it's safe to assume he'll be covering Denver's top wide
receiver, which, in this case, is Decker, who is averaging nearly 14
yards per catch and has eight touchdowns. Keep an eye on this matchup
in the fourth quarter, where Decker and Tim Tebow have done the bulk of
Denver offensively is going to have to play to its running-game
strengths, whether it's more option-oriented or leans to the more
recent two-back sets.
And that will be a tremendous chess match, given
Patriots coach Bill Belichick's coaching style that stresses
fundamentals of tackling and reading offensive keys to diagnose plays.
New England has had its issues vs. the pass but has been decent
defending opposing ground games.
Tebow is improving incrementally as a passer but
his best work has come against softer defensive looks late in games or
off play-action with the deep pass. His development isn't to the stage
where he can get into a shooting match with the Patriots.
Defensively, Denver will be at a significant
disadvantage against Tom Brady and Co. if the health of its secondary
doesn't improve. Rookie Rahim Moore played safety last week in Brian Dawkins' absence and his tackling was exceedingly poor. That's not a
workable formula against the NFL's No. 2 pass offense built on big
CB Andre Goodman's presence covering outside
receivers gives the Broncos the option of manning up CB Champ Bailey on
WR Wes Welker in the slot. But Goodman's dealing with a concussion.
His potential absence would mean regular nickel
back Chris Harris would start and Jonathan Wilhite - a Patriots castoff
- would be the third defensive back in the rotation. It might mean
defensive coordinator Dennis Allen needs to curtail some of his blitz
calls for fear of some of the one-on-one matchups that would emanate if
the extra pressure doesn't arrive.
--QB Tim Tebow's 517 rushing yards this season
already ranks first all-time in a single season in Denver franchise
--RB Willis McGahee averages 5.5 yards per carry
after halftime this season, the highest average in the NFL behind only
Buffalo's Fred Jackson (5.7) and ahead of Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy
--CB Champ Bailey's 189 passes defensed in 191
career games since 1999 is the highest per-game total (.99) in the NFL.
Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber (185, .90 average) and Green Bay's Charles Woodson (156, .86) round out the top three.
--DE Elvis Dumervil has at least a half-sack
during every step of Denver's six-game winning streak. All 7.5 of his
sacks have come since the Nov. 6 game at Oakland, coinciding with
Dumervil returning to full health after shoulder and ankle injuries.
--WR Demaryius Thomas has led Denver in receiving
for two straight weeks. His 11 catches within that span is the best
two-game output of his two-year career. He had 10 catches from Sept.
19-26 last year.
--SS Brian Dawkins missed Wednesday's practice
with a lingering neck issue that forced him out of the Bears game.
Dawkins experienced numbness in his arm, which is consistent with a
stinger. Coach John Fox earlier this week said he expected Dawkins to
be fine to play Sunday.
--CB Andre Goodman was wearing a visor and going
through the stretching period with teammates during the open media
period to begin Wednesday's practice. Goodman's recovery is critical to
watch this week, given the Patriots' No. 2 passing offense and a lack
of quality depth at cornerback beyond nickel back Chris Harris.
--FS David Bruton continues to struggle through a
series of Achilles/ankle issues. He missed practice Wednesday, and has
been limited by those injuries in recent weeks, reducing his practice
snaps. Bruton, though, hasn't missed a game as yet. He's tied with
Dante Rosario for the team lead in special-teams tackles (eight) and
plays a role in heavy dime packages.
--WR Eddie Royal returned to practice after
sitting out the previous 10 days after suffering a concussion vs.
Minnesota. Royal was limited. His return could mean a reprisal of his
punt-return duties. He also could cost Matt Willis and Demaryius Thomas
some offensive snaps.
New England allowed more than 450 yards and 27 points to Washington
last Sunday. And despite a five-game win streak, that success has come
against some of the NFL's lightweights at quarterback, including Tyler
Palko, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman.
The Broncos need to protect the ball and get back
to running the ball with stunning regularity and sustained success.
Chicago was able to contain the edges against Denver and penetrate the
backfield to hold Denver to 3.6 yards per carry. McGahee ran hesitantly
after missing practice time with a knee issue.
They'll need the McGahee that's put up six
100-yard individual games to play to Tebow's passing strengths - the
deep ball off play action against a beat-up new England secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Denver's efficiency protecting the football, with 10
giveaways in the last nine games, vs. a New England defense that ranks
fifth in the NFL in takeaways with 25: One of the reasons
Denver may want to get back to the 40-50 carry range of just a few
weeks ago is that it eats clock and keeps New England's team that's
already scored 396 points off the field. Another is that it prevents
the kind of tipped passes and breaks on the ball that have been
critical to the Patriots' notching 18 interceptions. And even with the
strides Tebow's made, his strength still isn't reading pro defenses. It
is Belichick's calling card to diagnose schemes that initiate confusion.
Broncos CB Champ Bailey, who has matched
up singly with some of the NFL's heavyweight WRs, vs. TE Rob
Gronkowski, the league's new standard for heavyweight TEs: Opponents
have mainly tried to double Gronkowski or cover him with a safety.
Rarely have teams committed a cover cornerback to take away that
option, in part because of Wes Welker's significant presence as a
pass-catcher from the inside. But Bailey has been tasked with matching
up with top-tier tight ends before: Tony Gonzalez in his Kansas City
days; Antonio Gates with San Diego. It's unlikely Bailey will go
full-time on Gronkowski, who'll see plenty of Quinton Carter, double
teams and LB Wesley Woodyard. But on key snaps, don't be surprised if
Bailey gets the call.
- Broncos Draws In The Commish
Ahead If Goodman Can't Heal Quickly
HOT TOPIC: Patriots
- Broncos Game Chatter
VIDEO: Broncos - Patriots Preview
Gridiron Report Week 15: Broncos
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Patriots - Broncos: Game Plans & Matchups
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