FOXBORO, Mass. — The playoffs have finally arrived for the Patriots, who have gone headfirst into their preparations for Saturday's rematch against the Broncos. For those who love the hype, this is one of the more entertaining weeks of the year. But for everyone who's tired of the Tim Tebow talk, well, just be thankful it's a short week.
Here are this week's 20 thoughts.
1. There will be a lot of attention this week on the adjustments made by the Patriots' defense over the course of their Week 15 victory against the Broncos. On the surface, the personnel grouping up front changed when Mark Anderson replaced an injured Andre Carter at the start of the second quarter, which I detailed after that game. But that was hardly the key.
2. For starters, the Patriots went into the game with a two-gap approach up front — letting the defensive lineman squarely engage an offensive lineman in order to either work off to either gap, or create enough space for the linebacker to penetrate the gap to get to the ball carrier. That didn't work. At all.
3. The Broncos did a great job to counter New England's approach. On nearly every big running play, they double-teamed the defensive lineman in the direction of the run, which opened the hole at the line. And the linebackers, on the whole, did a poor job in pursuit. It didn't help that the defensive lineman were blown out of their gaps on a lot of big plays, too, and none of them were innocent of that charge, either. It was a widespread problem.
4. The Broncos also did a very good job of double teaming either Vince Wilfork or Kyle Love, which allowed them to attack lesser run stuffers like Brandon Deaderick, Rob Ninkovich, Ron Brace and Shaun Ellis, who all had a tough time in the first half. For whatever reason, the double team was very effective at sealing the gap for the Broncos.
5. Lastly, the Broncos were excellent when they pulled an offensive lineman (when, for instance, a left guard pulls to the right side of the line to clear a gap for the runner). They were so good in that respect that the lineman was often able to break through the defensive line to put a hit on the linebacker to clear space all the way into the second level.
6. From there, it's on the safeties to clean up the mess, which can be a tough task. In general, when a running back has a full head of steam into the third level of the defense, the safeties really have to do a solid job of taking the proper angle and wrapping up the ball carrier. Tackling was a pretty big issue throughout the first half for New England.
7. Now, onto the adjustments. There were some changes in the second quarter, but the real overhaul happened in the third quarter, when the Patriots switched to more of a one-gap look, which means they (more often than not) lined up between the shoulders of two offensive linemen and were responsible for slicing through that gap.
8. It mostly affected the defensive tackles (Wilfork, Love and Warren), who spread out into the A-gaps (between the center and the guard). In the first half, either Wilfork or Love would line up over the top of the center, but in the second half, they split the gaps to give them a better chance against Denver's double teams. It also helped them in their pursuit of the offensive backfield.
9. Keep in mind, though, this tactic was used at the same time as the Patriots' offense was rounding into shape, which took away from the Broncos' offensive balance. Therefore, I wonder how effective it will be if the Patriots employ the one-gap strategy at the start of Saturday's game. Can it be just as effective against Denver's balanced offense?
10. Two of the Patriots' best tacklers will play Saturday, too. Linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung missed the first meeting of the season. And remember, the angles and the pursuit weren't very good from the linebackers and safeties in the first half of the Week 15 game. I'd expect it to be better this week with the upgrade in personnel.
11. The Patriots have mentioned that they weren't ready for how the Broncos would attack them in Week 15. They also didn't realize how fast Tebow is in person, as his speed doesn't show as well on film. And finally, I'm not sure they knew how hard running back Lance Ball hit the holes. One player compared that aspect of his game to Browns running back Peyton Hillis. With this first-hand knowledge, the Patriots expect to start better defensively Saturday.
12. It's worth noting that Julian Edelman gave the Patriots the best look at Tebow on the scout team in Week 15, and he was one of their practice players of the week as a result. If the Patriots win Saturday, that will be something to monitor next week.
13. You know what slipped my mind? The Broncos drafted wide receiver Demaryius Thomas with the 22nd pick in the 2010 draft, and that pick came from the Patriots, who landed the 24th pick and the fourth-rounder that was used on tight end Aaron Hernandez. The 24th pick was then shipped to the Cowboys, who selected wide receiver Dez Bryant. I'm not second-guessing the Patriots on this one because they came away with Hernandez and cornerback Devin McCourty with the combination of trades. I'm just bringing it up because I always remember Bryant and never remember Thomas, probably because Thomas wasn't very good until a month ago.
14. All the hoopla Sunday about the first ever overtime under the new rules was fun for a few minutes. But Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo can thank his former Tennessee roommate for sending it to overtime, as Broncos defensive end Robert Ayers sacked Ben Roethlisberger to wipe out the Steelers' chance at a game-winning score.
15. Does Broncos head coach John Fox ever think about Super Bowl XXXVIII, when his Panthers lost to the Patriots?
"Oh lord, I'll never forget it," Fox said. "I don't say that I dwell on it, but it's the only one that I've been in as a head coach. Those things are no fun losing."
16. To state the obvious, Deaderick was happy about his alma mater's national championship Monday night.
"It's good," Deaderick said Tuesday. "I'm happy for them and everything, but I've got to focus on what we've got to do this week. It's a great win for Alabama."
17. It's been a strange stretch for Brace, whose biggest play this season came when he forced Ball to fumble in Denver. But he was a healthy scratch for the final two games of the regular season, even though he was one of the practice players of the week for his work during their preparation for the Dolphins.
"I'm just doing what I have to do, whatever they ask me to do to help the team out, I'm doing," Brace said. "Can't sit around complaining about stuff I've got no control over. Just working on what I can do and try to put my best foot forward. Every day at practice, just try to get myself better at something. It may not be big or it could be little, but I'm just trying to get better at something."
18. I think the short week really benefits the Patriots in this case. The Broncos had the later game Sunday, and it was a physical one against Pittsburgh. And trust me, the short turnarounds, which the Broncos had due to the upcoming Saturday game, really do affect the players. Obviously, the Patriots had the luxury of the bye week and a chance to get a slight jump on Denver, though that might be something of a wash since they just played last month. But anyway, with the grind of the travel and the short week, the Broncos will have a slight disadvantage.
19. Remember when quarterback Tom Brady ran three consecutive sneaks in the fourth quarter down near the goal line against the Broncos? If the Patriots are in that situation this week, I'm curious if the addition of fullback Lousaka Polite helps the Patriots change that approach this week. The Broncos were winning the battles at the line of scrimmage, which I believed was the reason for Brady's sneaks. Polite, who helped BenJarvus Green-Ellis score his 10th touchdown of the season in Week 17, could pay tangible dividends in Saturday's rematch.
20. Every playoff game gives Brady a chance to set himself apart on a historical perspective. Brady, who is 14-5 in the postseason, has a chance to get his 15th victory this week, which would be the most by any quarterback with one team in NFL history. First-ballot Hall of Famers Joe Montana (14-5 with the 49ers), Terry Bradshaw (14-5 with the Steelers) and John Elway (14-8 with the Broncos) are tied with Brady.
Also, Montana (2-2 with the Chiefs) has the record for the most overall playoff wins by a quarterback with 16. Brady, Bradshaw and Elway are all tied for second.