The players have admitted two things since their December trip to Mile High: quarterback Tim Tebow is faster and more difficult to tackle than they anticipated by watching him on film, and they weren't primed to counter the way the Broncos attacked them offensively
"To be honest with you, I feel a little more comfortable this time around than the first time," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said of Saturday night's tilt at Gillette Stadium. "You really don't know what to expect the first time you see the option offense, even though the whole offense isn't option. There are certain looks you haven't seen since college pretty much. I feel a little more comfortable this time around. Hopefully, we get it done."
After falling behind 16-7 in the first matchup, the Patriots' greatest defensive adjustment came by switching from a two-gap system to a one-gap (more details here) and they changed the spacing of their front-four by pushing defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love a little farther apart.
This eliminated Denver's effective deployment of double teams, which created some wide-open running lanes and pushed players in the second and third levels of the defense out of position. That, in turn, cut down on the Patriots' poor pursuit angles and tackling issues. It doesn't mean the Patriots have a perfect formula for shutting down the Broncos' top-ranked rushing offense, but they're at least more aware of what worked and why.
"Now we've got a grasp on what they do," linebacker Dane Fletcher said
Plus, it's worth noting the key defensive adjustment coincided with the Patriots getting into a groove on offense, which forced the Broncos' hand. At that point, the Broncos knew they had to post some numbers to stay on pace with Tom Brady's passing attack, and the Broncos veered away from their running game. So, the turn in the game came on both sides of the ball.
While the Patriots had last weekend off, they also got to see how Denver's offense improved with its passing attack. Tebow hit five passes of at least 30 yards (including three of at least 50 yards) against the Steelers. By watching the film of the game, the Patriots noticed the Broncos will take advantage of teams that sell out on play-action, rollouts and the first move by their receivers (more details here). Because of that, the Patriots know they've got to play even more disciplined in their passing assignments
And finally, the Patriots put in two very productive weeks of work. Their pair of practices during the bye were intense, and they felt good as they departed for a three-and-a-half-day vacation. This week, the players returned refreshed, excited and dedicated to work.
As such, they had three consecutive practices without a single player missing for injury-related reasons. And linebacker Brandon Spikes, safety Patrick Chung and wide receiver Deion Branch, who all missed the Week 15 game, will provide a boost with their presence Saturday.
There's a good vibe in the locker room, and the Patriots appeared confident about their chances to handle Tebow and the Broncos for a second
"We're as ready as we're going to be," Mayo said.