The Patriots haven't made any noteworthy additions
to the roster thanks in large part to the fact they've had near-perfect
attendance at practice this week. The 53-man roster is as healthy as
it's been in months, which means there likely won't be any
practice-squad promotions or players signed off the street.
A healthy offensive line would certainly help the
running game, and a fully loaded secondary more than likely would limit
the experimenting that's gone on in recent weeks, particularly the
Devin McCourty audition at safety.
Through it all, there's still a chance the Patriots will try to utilize
McCourty somewhere in the deep part of the field, especially after
watching Broncos QB Tim Tebow burn Pittsburgh's secondary on the
game-winning touchdown last weekend.
--Practice-squad WR Britt Davis has drawn the
assignment of mimicking Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, who caught the
game-winning touchdown in last week's playoff game. Davis has spent
time with the Broncos, so his input could be valuable.
--WR Chad Ochocinco has been quiet most of the
season, but he could be a wild card for the Patriots if the Broncos try
to adjust their scheme to take TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Welker out
of commission. The last time the teams met, TE Aaron Hernandez
benefited from the game plan, but Ochocinco is always a threat to make
a big play deep down the field.
--RB Stevan Ridley, who could play a big role
offensively Saturday, thinks Denver's defense has flown under the
radar. "A lot of the talk is about (Tim) Tebow, but not so much about
their defense," Ridley said.
--DL Mark Anderson finished with 10 sacks this
season, marking the second time in his career he's reached double
digits in sacks in a single season.
--QB Tom Brady reached the 4,000-yard mark for the
fourth time this season, tying him with Warren Moon and Philip Rivers
for the fifth most 4,000-yard seasons in NFL history.
--DL Kyle Love was not seen on the field during
media availability at Wednesday's practice, the lone player missing
after the team had perfect attendance Tuesday. His absence was not
injury-related, though his status for this weekend is still uncertain.
--OL Sebastian Vollmer is finally back at practice
this week, a positive sign after he battled back and foot injuries.
Vollmer hasn't played in quite a while, but he appears to be heading in
the right direction for Saturday's playoff opener.
--OL Logan Mankins was back on the field Tuesday
and Wednesday after missing several games with a knee injury. Mankins
was a game-time scratch several weeks ago, but he should be ready for
--OL Donald Thomas should get just as much playing
time Saturday even if Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer are back in
the lineup. The additional body allows the Patriots to be more flexible
with player substitutions, and fresher legs from the offensive linemen
in the fourth quarter means more opportunities for the tight ends to
play a role in the passing game instead of having to stay back and
--NT Vince Wilfork's role could take on even more
importance this weekend if Kyle Love misses Saturday's playoff opener.
Though Wilfork is a Pro Bowler, Love has played the majority of snaps
at nose tackle in the team's 3-4 front with Wilfork serving a role as
the team's top interior player in a 4-3 scheme.
GAME PLAN: The plan of attack
against QB Tim Tebow might be different this weekend than it was in
Week 15 based off what the Patriots saw in Denver's playoff win over
Tebow has proved he can tuck the ball and run at a
moment's notice, which is no secret to anyone who followed his career
in college, but he's also proved he can connect with his receivers on
big plays, as evident by his 80-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to
Demaryius Thomas in overtime last week.
What the Steelers failed to do was guard the deep
part of the field, instead spending too much energy defending the
intermediate routes, which have been a problem for Tebow. The
second-year quarterback has shown a habit of poor decision-making when
he has less time to maneuver, but when given ample protection and ample
time to develop a big play down the field, he's showed he can execute
as well as any quarterback on any given day.
Expect to see plenty of nickel and dime coverage
this week. The Patriots don't want to get beat deep, so they'll gladly
leave the short routes undermanned in hopes that a frustrated Tebow
eventually will make a mistake. He's dangerous on the run, but more so
as a runner than as a passer, so if the Patriots can seal the edges and
force Tebow to make quick decisions, they'll be in good shape.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots OLB
Rob Ninkovich vs. Broncos QB Tim Tebow -- Though the Patriots won't
reveal any of their game plan, they figure to use a spy to track Tebow
from time to time, assuming the athletic quarterback tucks the ball and
runs as often as he's expected to. Ninkovich is a perfect candidate
because of his size and speed. As coach Bill Belichick says, you
wouldn't use the same player to spy Ben Roethlisberger as you would to
spy Michael Vick, and Tebow is big enough to warrant a strong defender
as a spy.
Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas vs. Patriots DB Devin
McCourty -- This isn't a traditional matchup because McCourty probably
won't spend the entire game at the cornerback position defending Thomas
one-on-one. McCourty might be asked to play safety at times, which
means he could draw the assignment in the deep part of the field and
serve as the last line of defense on big plays. Everyone saw what
happened when Pittsburgh left Ike Taylor stranded in the secondary in
overtime last weekend, and there's a chance for a similar big play or
two Saturday night if McCourty doesn't grasp the concept of playing
safety in the next few days.
Broncos RB Willis McGahee vs. Patriots LB Jerod Mayo -- In a perfect world, the Patriots could use up to six defensive
backs to defend the deep part of the field and prevent Tebow from
taking chances down the field, but the plan will go down the drain if
the interior linebackers can't stop the run. McGahee is a big part of
this game; if he gets going, the Patriots will have to stack the box
defensively, which then leaves Tebow with the chance to exploit the
The Broncos made a tactical switch in the
Pittsburgh game, going to a heavy dime package that included three
safeties -- David Bruton, Quinton Carter and Rafael Bush.
Denver likes the alignment against teams like New
England that can spread the ball out because Bush has cornerback
abilities at the safety position. Carter and Bruton share deep
responsibilities, and the former should be active in coverage against
the Patriots' dangerous tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski-Aaron
The Broncos went without a fullback vs. Pittsburgh
after putting starter Spencer Larsen (knee) on injured reserve. The
team instead opted for two- and three-TE sets that frequently employed
tackles Tony Hills and Chris Clark alone and in tandem.
In lead-blocking situations, the team also used
tight end Dante Rosario in two-back sets.
--SS Brian Dawkins has been doing some lateral
movement exercises, stretching and light sprinting exercises, but he
still hasn't received clearance to practice. Dawkins hurt his neck in
the Dec. 11 game against Chicago, and he has played just over one
quarter of one game in the four games since.
--WR Eric Decker has been classified by the team
as having a knee sprain, believed to be his medial collateral ligament.
Decker didn't take part in the first two days of prep for New England,
and his return is an extreme long shot.
--DE Elvis Dumervil was given an off day earlier
in the week for ankle and leg issues, but the team's second-leading
sack producer shouldn't be hampered much come game day.
--TE Daniel Fells (ankle) was able to return to
the Steelers game after taking a hit flush on his foot following a long
catch. Fells is limited at practice but will be good to go Saturday
GAME PLAN: The Broncos ran the
ball for 167 yards in the first quarter alone in the first meeting with
the Patriots (and 254 overall), and with frigid temperatures expected
in Foxboro, you can bet they will lean heavily on the ground game to
try to move the chains.
Denver's offense hit the quick strike on numerous
occasions vs. Pittsburgh, and if the Patriots sell out in run support,
QB Tim Tebow will take his shots.
But the first order of business is getting RB
Willis McGahee untracked, whether via zone-blocking methodology, a
matchup scheme, the read-option or a combination of the three.
Defensively, the Broncos will try to disguise
their coverages as long as possible to keep Tom Brady from checking out
of plays and attacking the weak areas of the field. But expect Denver
to keep up an attacking mind-set -- using multiple fronts and blitz
packages -- after Brady was hit only a couple of times and sacked twice
in the first meeting. The Broncos hope that man-to-man coverage can
hold up against the Patriots' talented wide receivers and tight ends.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots WR Wes
Welker, the NFL's leader in receptions with 122, vs. Denver CB Chris Harris, who handles slot responsibilities in nickel and dime packages
-- One of four rookies to play in all 17 games for the Broncos, Harris
has been one of the biggest surprises on the roster this season.
Undrafted out of Kansas, Harris has shown both a willingness to tackle
with a spirited, aggressive approach in man-to-man coverage. Welker is
as savvy as they come, but in the first meeting, he was limited to four
catches. Harris said the key was to challenge Welker on every snap and
try to limit his route options. But Welker has the savvy to use the
December meeting as a setup for future route combinations. Harris will
have to be able to adjust.
Broncos LB Von Miller, who led Denver with 11.5
sacks in the regular season in gaining second-team All-Pro honors, vs.
New England's offensive line -- In the Pittsburgh game, Miller went
back to a joker role he's handled at times this season where defensive
coordinator Dennis Allen attempts to get matchup problems by moving
Miller around the formation. The result vs. Pittsburgh was Miller
getting his first sack in four games and adding three tackles, despite
still being hampered by a bothersome cast on his right thumb. Miller
aligned over center on occasion in the first meeting vs. New England
but was largely silent with just a single tackle for loss. Miller must
get in the Patriots' backfield on at least a few occasions to make Tom
Brady take notice or else it will be a long day for Denver.
Talk -- Patriots Talk
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