Broncos see Patriots as big barometer

The Denver Broncos haven’t been to the playoffs since 2006, so

they’re in no position and certainly no mood to judge the quality

of the opponents they’re dispatching with all this last-minute


They’re 7-1 since Tim Tebow took over and started engineering a

series of outrageous second-half comebacks. Those opponents,

though, have a combined record of 39-52.

With Tom Brady and the powerful New England Patriots (10-3)

coming to town Sunday, the Broncos (8-5) see this as a chance to

prove they’re not just a curiosity but a contender.

”Yeah, well, we need to prove it to ourselves,” star

cornerback Champ Bailey said. ”We’ve played against some teams

that were kind of struggling. We’d like to go put it together

against a top-quality quarterback like Brady.”

It’s not just Tebow who’s facing what could be his toughest test

since he started the final three games last season and then

supplanted an ineffective Kyle Orton in October after a 1-4


Denver’s dominant defense, which has two hiccups – against the

multifaceted Lions and Packers, faces another formidable challenge

in the Patriots, led by Brady, who’s thrown for 33 touchdown

passes, 15 of them to big tight end Rob Gronkowski and nine to Wes

Welker, who already has 100 catches.

”He’s getting them all the ball,” said Broncos safety Brian

Dawkins. ”Nobody’s really starving for catches.”

And so, the AFC East-leading Patriots are feasting on opponents,

putting up an AFC-best 31 points a game.

That kind of firepower means the AFC West-leading Broncos’

notoriously slow-starting offense will have to keep pace, and given

New England’s defensive shortcomings, this game could turn into a


Only twice have the Broncos piled up points since Tebow took

over in October. They put up 38 at Oakland and 35 at Minnesota. But

six times they’ve failed to even score 20 points with Tebow


That’s why so many see this game as the Broncos’ best barometer


The Patriots have the pedigree the Broncos used to have when

they, too, were a perennial playoff team. But Denver hasn’t punched

its ticket to the postseason party since losing to Pittsburgh in

the AFC championship game following the 2005 season.

”Obviously New England has been a team that’s been in the

playoffs for the last decade or whatever. So they’ve got a lot of

players who’ve been there,” Broncos pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil

said. ”They’re the team that’s always been in the playoffs. We

want to establish ourselves as that team. This is a good challenge

for us.”

The Broncos have long been Brady’s bugaboo, beating him five

times in six tries, including a 27-13 win on Jan. 14, 2006, when

Bailey returned a game-changing interception 100 yards, helping

hand Brady his first playoff loss and ending New England’s 10-game

postseason winning streak and a shot at an unprecedented third

straight Super Bowl title.

”Considering how much they won the previous years, they were

pretty much unbeatable,” Bailey said. ”To get a play like that

and to change the game, to get a win against a team like that, yes,

it’s a special moment.”

With the Patriots going in for the go-ahead score, Bailey

stepped in front of Troy Brown in the end zone for the pick and

sprinted down the sideline, only to get knocked out of bounds at

the 1 by hustling tight end Ben Watson.

”Yeah. I thought my guy Nick Ferguson – we all remember him – I

thought if he looked inside and blocked that guy coming across the

field, then I would have scored,” Bailey cracked. ”But we still

ended up scoring on the next play.”

This game doesn’t hold nearly as much significance, but in many

ways it’s the most intriguing matchup at Mile High in years.

The Patriots could clinch a playoff spot and inch closer to

home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which could prove the

best salve for their defensive troubles.

The Broncos could take a lot of pressure off themselves over the

final two weeks of the season, with games against Buffalo on the

road and at home against Kansas City.

Bailey, the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback, will have his work

cut out for him, covering either Welker in the slot or the

Patriots’ two big tight ends in Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

”What makes them so tough is their size,” Bailey said. ”I can

keep up with them with my feet, but it’s just the pushing and the

shoving and the ball placement. It’s tougher when you have a

quarterback like Tom Brady, because he puts the ball where nobody

else can get it.”

Then, he might have to chase around Welker, the 5-foot-9 dynamo

who’s putting up big numbers himself.

”It’s like night and day, but they’re all productive,” Bailey

said. ”We’ve got some tools that we’re going to use and hopefully

they work.”

Notes: Dawkins (neck) and CB Andre’ Goodman (concussion)

practiced Friday and are listed as questionable for the game. …

Tebow on the two 17-year-old boys in New York who were suspended

for organizing ”Tebowing” kneel-downs at their high school, where

the superintendent said the tribute posed a safety hazard by

blocking others from getting to class: ”You have to respect the

position of authority and people that God’s put as authority over

you, so that’s part of it, and just finding the right place and the

right time to do things is part of it, too. But I think it does

show courage from the kids standing out and doing that, and some


Reach out to AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on