Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: Saturday's AFC Divisional Round Game:
(4) DENVER (9-8) at (1) NEW ENGLAND (13-3), 8 p.m. ET, CBS
The two quarterbacks in this game are the faces of their franchises. Broncos QB Tim Tebow won his first career postseason game last week in thrilling fashion, throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first snap of overtime to defeat the visiting Steelers, 29-23. Patriots QB Tom Brady is tied with former Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw for the best postseason record (14-5) of any quarterback in league history.
On the surface, the matchup would seem to benefit the heavily favored Patriots. Not so fast. The Broncos and their 23rd-ranked offense have already knocked out the Steelers and their No. 1 overall defense. Can lightning strike twice?
New England won its third consecutive AFC East title and its eighth in the last nine seasons. The past two division crowns have led to home playoff games for the Patriots but have also led to postseason heartbreak as they lost at Gillette Stadium to the Ravens in the 2009 AFC Wild Card Round and to the Jets in last year's AFC Divisional Round. The Pats will look to stop that trend on Saturday night in prime time.
Denver finished the regular season as the league's top rushing team with 164.5 yards per game. The Broncos were the only team to call run plays on more than half their offensive snaps, a result of their read-option offense. Feature tailback Willis McGahee led the way with 1,199 yards on the ground while Tebow led the team with six rushing TDs. McGahee (249), Tebow (122) and RB Lance Ball (96) all had significant carries for the run-happy Broncos.
The Patriots defense finished 31st in total yardage allowed, only 8 yards better than the 32nd-ranked Packers. They were better against the run, with their No. 17 run defense giving up an average of 117.1 yards per game, which was also the league average.
What the Patriots lack on defense they more than make up for on offense. Brady led the AFC's best "O" with a career-high 5,235 yards passing. Among the benefactors of his special season was TE Rob Gronkowski, who set NFL tight end records with 1,327 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns. WR Wes Welker led the league in receptions with 122 and was second in receiving yards with 1,569.
The Broncos defense will be tasked with stopping Brady and New England, something they failed to do in their 41-23 home loss in Week 15. The Denver secondary is anchored by CB Champ Bailey, who will likely see plenty of time lined up across from Welker. Rookie LB Von Miller led Denver with 11.5 sacks and DE Elvis Dumervil added 9.5 of his own. Each had a sack of Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger last week.
Keep an eye on the turnover battle. The Pats boast the AFC's best turnover margin at plus-17 and led the conference with 34 takeaways. On the other hand, the Broncos were minus-12 and were tied for the second-most giveaways in the conference.
Since becoming the starting quarterback in 2001, Brady has struggled against the Broncos, owning a 2-6 record. However, in their most recent game last month, he threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Tebow completed 11 passes for 194 yards and added another 93 and two touchdowns on the ground.
The Patriots and Broncos have squared off twice in the postseason, with Denver emerging victorious both times. The first was a 22-17 win at Mile High in the 1987 AFC Divisional Round. More recently was a 27-13 Broncos win in the 2006 divisional round. In that game, Brady threw for 341 yards and a touchdown but also threw two interceptions. The first interception led to the iconic 100-yard return by Bailey that incidentally did not result in a touchdown, as he was tackled inside the 1-yard line by TE Benjamin Watson.
The Broncos hold the edge in the all-time series against the Pats with a 27-17 record. New England is 8-9 at home against Denver.
Adding to the intrigue this week is the return of Josh McDaniels, who was the New England offensive coordinator from 2006-08 before becoming the Broncos' head coach in '09. He was released after less than two full seasons and served as the Rams' OC this season. McDaniels was rehired by Bill Belichick this week as an offensive assistant who will take over coordinator duties in 2012 after current OC Bill O'Brien leaves to become the head coach at Penn State.
Before departing Denver for St. Louis, McDaniels drafted Tebow and WR Demaryius Thomas. This week he will help game-plan against the Broncos' playoff heroes.
The game will be a bitter watch for Jets fans, as both teams contributed to the Green & White's 8-8 season. The Jets fell twice to the Patriots, in Week 5 at New England, 30-21, then in Week 10 at MetLife Stadium, 37-16. Of course, Jets fans remember all too well the crushing 17-13 defeat at the hands — and feet — of Tebow and the Broncos in Denver in Week 11.
As stated earlier, the Patriots are on a two-game losing streak in the playoffs at home. The first loss in that streak came against the Baltimore Ravens in a Wild Card matchup in 2009. The second was last season's memorable 28-21 victory by the Jets in the divisional round. Overall, the Patriots are 11-3 at home in the playoffs.
Among the familiar faces in Patriots uniforms will be 11-year Jets DE Shaun Ellis, RB Danny Woodhead and S James Ihedigbo. Woodhead averaged 4.6 yards per carry in limited action this season, while Ihedigbo led all New England safeties with 67 tackles. New England DL coach Pepper Johnson was a Jets starting ILB in 1997-98.
Denver has no players with Jets ties but does have a coaches the Green & White faithful will remember in Sam Garnes, the Broncos' assistant secondary coach who was the Jets' starting SS in 2002-03.