Broncos at Pats.

Keys to the game.

The Great Eights

For a club with only three losses in the regular season of 2011, the Patriots have endured a chain of statistical indictments of their defense. Most often the squad was said to be the "worst in the league" and occasionally and incredibily "the worst ever." Indeed there hasn't been a game without a few breathtaking plays with defensive backs out of position, missed tackles near the goal line, and--perhaps most disheartening--sideline muggings of wide receivers that draw flags even on what look like uncatchable passes.

As ugly as it's been to watch, taken over the whole sixty minutes, the game plan still looks like the bend-but-don't-break defense of the past. Yes, the Pats have given up huge yards to opponents. The only team that gave up more is the Green Bay Packers. Belichick's situational approach means a focus on innovation and practice for situations in the red zone. What happens between the 30 yard lines just doesn't matter as much. Looking at turnovers and points allowed the Patriots look more competitive. When this philosophy has worked, it's meant opportunistic turn-overs and a "taking care of business" attitude which has closed out games early.

Another observation has been that in 2011, no win came against a team that finished with a winning record. Fully half of the Pats wins were in fact against teams that finished neither winning nor losing. 8-8 was a very popular record this year and hardly suggest doormat status. One of those teams is the Denver Broncos.

The Delicate Machine

Recent playoff opponents (the Giants, then the Ravens, then the Jets) had two characteristics in common through their victories: an offense not favored to dominate that played free and found success, and a defense that hurried and harried Tom Brady successfully. In those seasons the Patriots had a passing offense as carefully crafted as a swiss watch. The vertical capability was personified by Moss, the slot attack by Welker. The timings and tolerances were finely honed reliance on receivers.

In those losing efforts, the Pats faces talented defensive lines that successfully jammed the offensive clockwork by throwing off Brady's timing. In those games the weakness of the offense was exposed: limited outlets and second looks--they lacked tight ends or running backs who could catch the ball and take pressure off the line to protect Brady.

While we've seen the Patriots offense experience tremulous timing this year, it's been more likely to recover because of the flexibility of the Gronkowski and Hernandez. Even when the timing is off, the Patriots 2011 passing attack has been able to right itself after a series or three. Witness the startling contrasts between one quarter or half and another. In previous years it felt like it they didn't have it in the first possession the game was already half lost. This year the offense feels far more resilient. To wit, look for the twin TEs to keep drives going and create a scoring differential that complicates last minute gambling by the Broncos.

The Option Read

As a run/pass quarterback, Tim Tebow and the Broncos offense force an opposing defense to react three times: first to the threat of a timing pass (Tebow's weakest asset) second to the play-action, (a credible threat with Denver's strong running game ex-Tebow) and third to a scrambling deep-ball threat (best exemplified against the Steelers the previous week).

Look for the Patriots to follow the model of success in Denver (and the success of Kansas City) by crowding the line, reading the option, preventing eight-yard-plus runs and keeping up man-to-man with Broncos receivers. This approach doesn't come for free--it could gas any defense.

Look for the Pats to perhaps benefit from the patchwork personnel of the regular season by begin able to exercise a lot of sub packages and keep key guys fresh.

Bottom Line Numbers

If we ignore the Josh McDaniels sideshow and assume the offensive machine will keep time, then it's up to the defense to simply "take care of business" by pressuring the Broncos into short drives. Two key people on the defense for that effort are 25 and 75.

For the first time since September Patrick Chung (#25) will be playing safety with a health secondary and Mayo comfortable as the signal caller. Look for Chung to be key in preventing the Broncos "big play" attack along the sidelines.

In December, Wilfork (#75) had opportunities to hurry or sack Tebow but didn't get there. By drawing a double-team, he's often springing someone else. Look for him to get to Tebow passing or running and to hear it from a nervously confident crowd. A win in this game means the Patriots can play free one or two times more.

Posted January 14, 2012.

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