Mike: Nick, I’m sure you’re relishing the fact that I have to write this preview with you while my Jets are in utter turmoil. You probably assume that I’m already resigning myself to a Patriots romp through the AFC. But, it’s amazing what a week without Patriots football will do to your memory… it makes me super optimistic about

TEEEEEEEEBBBBBBOOOOOOOWWWWWW!

Wait. That didn’t work last time. Maybe a new rally call will do:

ONE AND DONE! ONE AND DONE! ONE AND DONE! ONE AND DONE!

So, let’s hear it, Nick. How are the Pats going to win their first postseason game since before our 21st birthdays?

Nick: Come up with all the lame rally cries you want, but I’m supremely confident that the Pats will handle business this Saturday in Foxboro. Well, maybe supremely confident is a bit of an overstatement, because I’m always pessimistic (particularly when it comes to Boston sports) and there’s a 10% chance that some Supreme Being is pulling some serious strings to make Tebowmania an official religion.

So how will the Pats win this game, you ask? The way they have won every game this year: offense, offense, and more offense. And the possibility that Tebow will complete 6 whole passes this week.

Mike: Chill yourself with Tebow’s completion rate. He completed eleven when he played the Pats in week 15. And he connected for 10 last week. Does that make sense for a quarterback in the post-Marino era? No. But he’s multiplied his completions per game fivefold since his first victory. Six completions? Please, Jesus Jr. will have plenty of help on high. Just look at Conan’s completely accurate reenactment of the last play from wildcard game – my point is proven!

Nick: First of all, the Pats get to play the Broncos at home, after already running up 49 points at Mile High earlier this year. Under Brady and Belichick, the Pats are impeccable at home. I know you’re going to throw two straight home playoff losses back in my face, but I’m unfazed. This Patriots team is always better at home, those two games aside.

Mike: I’m glad you’re willing to put the Pats’ back-to-back poor playoff performances at home aside. But if the Patriots’ last two home playoff games aren’t pertinent enough for you, let’s take a look at home field advantage in the divisional round since 2005. Those games have been perfectly split: 12-12. That’s probably still to pertinent for you. So let’s look at home field advantage in the wildcard round since 2007. Those teams have only eked out a slight advantage of 21-19 because of last week’s sweep. That’s probably still too pertinent to you. So how about this? Coin flips come out 50-50.  The Patriots are a case-in-point that home field advantage doesn’t help in the playoffs.

Nick: Quote these obscure numbers all you want, but I just watched all four home teams advance to the next round last weekend. But yes, kudos to you, you figured out that home field advantage isn’t as important when you’re playing other playoff caliber teams. Shocking!

I’ll still take it, though, because regardless of these numbers you pull off the Interwebs, you always want to play in front of your home crowd and in conditions that are favorable and familiar to your team. To be honest, I think you’re only saying this because it’s the Patriots; if we were writing up a preview about the Saints-49ers, you would probably be gushing about how the Saints are at such a disadvantage on the road.

Mike: Don’t even go there with me picking on the Pats. I’ve picked them to win so many times on this blog that I’ve given them more than their fair share of respect, especially as a Jets fan who looks forward to the inevitable day when Tom Brady retires and the team collapses into a pile of shit. One that’s more depression-inducing than this one that has lost three consecutive post-season games.

Nick: If you’re looking forward to the day Tom Brady retires, you lead a sad existence. You have so much to live for, Michael! Well, not when it comes to the Jets, but other things, I’m sure.

Mike: As for the Saints example. I picked them to win the Super Bowl. Yes, folks. I’m putting it out there. Saints v. Ravens, and the Saints take it. So, no, I don’t think the home field advantage is going to play a role in that game. I think the Saints are going to put on a fireworks show and Darren Sproles will continue to come awake at the right moment.

Nick: More importantly than a bunch of league-wide home records that hardly say anything about this specific match-up, the Broncos don’t have the altitude to their advantage. Tebow and his offense always seemed to wear opposing defenses down (or bore them to death, depending on your point of view), then make big plays late in the game. Not this week. Also, Tebow’s horrible throwing motion and lazy, drunken spiral won’t fare so well in real air with real weather.

I also like home field advantage because Matt Prater is essentially worthless outside of Mile High. You won’t see him hitting any heroic 3-pointers from half-field in New England. And that’s pretty much the only way that Denver has been able to consistently score, on long, improbable field goals from Prater. Stephen Gostkowski will be a huge advantage on the special teams front in Foxboro.

Mike: So Matt Prater might not be as effective in the windy conditions of Gilette Stadium. But if the Broncos are leaning on field goals for their scoring, they’ll already have much bigger problems. You don’t keep up with Tom Brady by nailing it through the uprights.

The primary reason why I don’t buy home field advantage is because I’ve watched my favorite team win four times on the road in the last two post-seasons. It just doesn’t matter enough to overcome the actual match-up of defense v. offense and player v. player. If anything is going to help the Pats, it’s going to come from Tom Brady.

If Brady fails to create enough separation in the score when the fourth quarter comes around, that’s when the magic pixie dust starts to float down from on high. The idea of Tebow Time has a lot to do with poor defensive planning. The Steelers might have underestimated Tebow throughout the game, but the fatal moment came when they thought they could crush Tebow by overloading the box. I don’t think the Patriots defense is disciplined or prepared enough to deal with Tebow in the last moments of the game to avoid the disaster of “Tebow Time.”

Nick: I know Tebow impressed last week, even my begrudging self. But let’s not start some coronation ceremony just because he beat the Steelers. That was a shell of the Pittsburgh team from the regular season thanks to no Ryan Clark, no Rashard Mendenhall, a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, and a bevy of in-game injuries. That Pittsburgh D, either through attitude or game plan (or both), seemed to totally disregard, or at least underestimate, the deep threat and Tebow’s potential to throw a ball forward with any semblance of accuracy. I can guarantee that Belichick won’t let the Pats make the same mistake, and will have a pretty solid game plan in place to stop the bomb from Tebow to Demayrius Thomas. Considering the Pats were able to adjust on the fly and limit Tebow in the Week 15 game after getting gashed for 157 first quarter rushing yards, I think two weeks to game plan will provide plenty of time to bottle up Tebow and the Denver offense.

This is where you lose me. The Patriots defense isn’t disciplined or prepared? They’re going to be extremely well-prepared and disciplined. You’re not even going to give Bill Belichick that ounce of respect? You’re right, he’s not the master motivator Rex Ryan is. He should probably bestow the honor of team captain on some disgruntled superstar as some misguided notion that he’ll be inspired to play well. Oh wait, that ended with Santonio Holmes getting benched for quitting on his team. Nice.

Mike: Screw Bill Belichick. I still don’t buy his defensive guruship. 1991-2000 Belichick presided over one (ONE!) winning team. Tom Brady appears on the scene in 2001 and viola! Pats are a winning team and Belichick gets to ride the Tom Brady success train all the way to becoming the winningest coach-QB tandem in history. This is probably better saved for another post where I go off on how much of a shit-head the no-sleeves orge of New England is, so I’ll leave it aside. Suffice to say, I don’t think the Patriots defense will be prepared for Timmy. But I do think they’ll play more conservatively than the Steelers did, and probably benefit from that.

Nick: I’m 100% sure that Belichick will not overload the box like the Steelers and dare Tebow to beat the Pats deep. He’ll let him grind out some runs, but I don’t see the Broncos being able to keep up that kind of scoring, even against the Pats. Belichick is well aware he doesn’t have the personnel to try to match up man-to-man on the outside, so he’s not even going to attempt to replicate the Steelers game plan (especially considering how well that turned out). They’re going to keep Tebow in the pocket with four rushers and a QB spy, not be as terrible at containment as James Harrison (could he have bitten any harder on those fake hand-offs?), and I think they’ll manage to execute.

But really, the best way the Pats can win is to run up a two-touchdown lead and force Tebow to become a pocket-passer playing catch-up. That was the real key to the last game, and with Gronkowski, Welker, and Hernandez all running routes, I don’t see the Broncos being much more than a minor nuisance, like a twist-off bottle cap – you just want to drink your beer, but you have to go through all this effort to open the frickin’ thing first. Such a pain.

Mike: So the key is what needs to go Brady’s way in order for the score differential to be greater than ten points. The three turnovers the Pats were gifted in Week 15 would be nice, but the Steelers, also known as the best pass defense and eighth-ranked rush defense, only nabbed one of Tebow’s wobbly passes.

Nick: The Steelers may have been the a top defense, but you know as well as I do that they were terrible at forcing turnovers all year. The Pats managed to wrangle 34 takeaways, tops in the AFC and tied for third in the NFL. Were those Week 15 fumble recoveries kind of fluky? Sure, the ball just happened to bounce their way (Book of Barnwell 3:16). But the Pats are better than the Steelers at creating turnovers, and more importantly, the Pats offense is incredible at capitalizing on those opportunities.

Mike: I read that article from Barnwell, too. I’m coming to the opinion that using the word “lucky” with fumbles is not very useful in getting a better sense of a team’s strength. So the pigskin bounces unpredictably. Luck is preparedness meeting opportunity. There’s skill involved. (There! I gave the Pats some credit, happy?)

Nick: Maybe lucky isn’t the right word, but “random” probably is. I don’t think there’s a way to be “prepared” to recover a fumble.You can’t expect a team to recover a ton of fumbles every week, but sometimes it happens. Random, lucky, whatever you want to call it, but either way it’s not a sustainable skill to consistently recover fumbles.

Mike: Just wondering: If you look at the Patriots’ loss to the Jets last postseason, Welker and Gronkowski were non-factors. So my first question is, will these two break out this time?

Nick: I think Welker and Gronk will be fine. For starters, Gronk was a rookie last year, and you never want to count on a rookie player in his first career playoff game. He’s a little older (probably not any wiser, though), and after a record-setting year, I’d say he will be ready. As for Welker, of course he no-showed last year against the Jets. He always has terrible games matched up against Revis, but Denver doesn’t have anyone remotely comparable to the best cornerback in the league. That Jets defense (last year’s version; this year….not so much) was built to stop the Pats passing attack, heavy on high-caliber corners to handle any number of opposing receivers.

Mike: And my second question is, do you think the Broncos are incapable of pulling off the beat-the-Pats scheme of jamming the Patriots receivers and forcing them to find another play aside from “short pass, short pass, short pass, HUGE PLAY?”

Nick: I don’t think Denver can possibly make the same claim to fame. And before you say anything, Champ Bailey was washed up two years ago. Just look at his beard. It screams old man. Awesome old man, but still an old man. They may be slightly better suited in the secondary this time around with one or two fewer rookies, but I don’t think they can hang with a healthy Brady who has all of his many weapons available to him. Their defense is predicated on a dominant pass rush, which had all but disappeared until last week. Of course, that was against a depleted Pittsburgh offensive line and a quarterback who could barely put any weight on his front foot for the entire first half. I think the Pats will be able to slow down Dumervil and Miller and give Brady time to find his receivers down the field (or right in front of him for consistent 6-8 yard gains, as the case may be). Do you agree, or will I be watching two human wrecking balls in action on Saturday?

Mike: The problem with defending Brady is that you have to do two things simultaneously and very effectively. You need to put pressure on him (enter Dumervil and Miller, stage right and left), while jamming his receiving options. Brady relies on those quick passes to get the offense marching. He can respond to pressure well because he doesn’t hold the ball very long. So the Broncos need to slow down the wide outs and tight ends just enough that Brady will be forced to deal with the pressure by moving (which he cannot do) or tossing the ball into traffic (which even he can’t get away with all the time).

This has been the playbook for beat the Brady offense since 2007. The Giants did it in the Superbowl. The Jets did it last year in the divisional round. And the Steelers did it perfectly this season. But it is not easy. Sadly, I don’t think the Broncos have it in them to play four quarters of perfect defense against the Pats and hand them their fourth straight postseason loss.

Final Score: Patriots 28, Broncos 24

Nick: Sure, that’s the blueprint to beat Brady and Co, but case in point: easier said than done. I don’t think the Broncos can get that kind of blanket coverage or generate that kind of pressure. The only saving grace for the Broncos might be that Welker is listed as questionable. Even if he doesn’t play, I think Julian Edelman could fill in ably (he always has), and the Pats will be just fine.  In fact, I think they’ll even be able to generate some rushing yards (they ran for 141 yards in Week 15, and controlled the ball for 33 minutes – fancy that!).

Other than Welker, though, the Pats finally had everyone at practice this week with the extra week of rest. Literally everyone. Their offensive line looks like it will be intact, Deion Branch is back as Brady’s security blanket, and Brady’s shoulder injury didn’t limit him in practice. Meanwhile, the Broncos lost Eric Decker (their only other reliable wide receiver besides Thomas), are down a couple of O-linemen, and Willis McGahee has looked all but injured with how sluggish he has been in the backfield. Being healthy should be an advantage in this game (one would think).

In other words, not only will the Patriots come away with a win (phew!), they might even cover the spread (though two touchdowns is a lot to ask in the playoffs).

At least that’s what I’m telling myself. All these rational football reasons make sense to me, but I can’t shake the terrified feeling of impending doom coming into this game. There’s a lot at stake for the Pats – and us fans – and I don’t think I can handle it. Whatever. Sticking to my guns.

Final Score: Patriots 31, Broncos 17

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