WHAT TO WATCH FOR: If the weather remains frigid in Foxborough, that may be good for the Patriots, because Denver QB Tim Tebow has never played in a game below 30 degrees.
The Broncos ran the ball for 167 yards in the first quarter alone in the first meeting with the Patriots (and 254 overall), but still lost, 41-23. You can bet that New England will use five and six defensive backs, and definitely will have safeties covering deep. That was the mistake that Pittsburgh made last weekend in Denver’s wild-card win, often having eight or nine defenders in the box looking to stop the run, and daring Tebow to pass.
Well, he was very accurate on his deep throws, especially a 30-yard touchdown to Eddie Royal and a 50-yarder down the sideline to overtime hero Demaryius Thomas. Steelers CB Ike Taylor was supposed to have dropped off the line of scrimmage on the touchdown throw, but he was beaten off the line of scrimmage, and Thomas stiff-armed him and took it 80 yards. The Patriots will bring pressure, and look for LB Rob Ninkovich, who forced a Tebow fumble last time, to spy the young quarterback.
The Patriots have lost their last two home playoff games, but are 74-15 overall in Gillette Stadium. Yes, the Patriots give up a lot of yards, but Tom Brady passed for 5,235 yards this season and has the NFL’s best tight end in Rob Gronkowski. The Broncos took him away at Mile High, but Brady simply found Aaron Hernandez, his other tight end, for nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Patriots WR Wes Welker, the NFL’s leader in receptions with 122, had only four catches against Denver rookie CB Chris Harris. Welker must win this battle early and often in order to get Brady off to a fast start.
Right now, the Broncos are a more confident team than the one that lost to New England a month ago. And Brady must be mindful of pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and rookie Von Miller, who has figured out how to play with a cast on his right arm.
CZAR’S SCOOP: There was some relief within the Patriots that the Broncos knocked off the Steelers. There is no question that Josh McDaniels, who was fired as head coach by the Broncos during the 2010 season, knows something about Tebow, because he drafted him in the first round.
But McDaniels, re-hired by New England before the playoffs as an offensive assistant, will be helping out Brady more because of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien taking the Penn State job, replacing Joe Paterno. O’Brien, the assistant who had the brush-up with Brady on the sidelines late in the Week 14 win over the Washington Redskins, has promised to remain with the team throughout the playoffs. It just makes sense that, at times, his mind is elsewhere, like on recruiting.
The McDaniels hire was a great move by the Patriots because Bill Belichick is comfortable with him and he didn’t want to move across the state of Missouri to Kansas City. Who knows? McDaniels could be in position in New England to replace Belichick one day.
Because McDaniels was on the Rams’ payroll for two more months, Patriots owner Bob Kraft was appreciative that Rams owner Stan Kroenke released McDaniels from his contract, something he technically didn’t have to do. It won’t be easy for the Rams to find an offensive coordinator as talented as McDaniels, and also it will be Sam Bradford’s third different coordinator in three seasons.
The Broncos signed long snapper David Binn to replace an injured Lonie Paxton, who was New England’s snapper during their Super Bowl runs. Binn snapped for 17 seasons in San Diego, but he hasn’t done it in a game since the 2010 preseason. He was injured in the Chargers’ first game that season and was cut last summer, so he’s missed basically two seasons.
The Pats are considering using Devin McCourty at both safety and cornerback Saturday.