WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
This is a really big one. The Patriots have been exceptional all year in turnover differential ranking third in the league with +17. That’s even with a untypically interception “prone” Tom Brady, who had 12 on the season. The Patriots only lost five fumbles on the season, and took away 11 fumbles and 23 interceptions.
One of the big threats to the Patriots successfully winning this battle might be Stevan Ridley. I’m not saying he’s a turnover machine by any means, but he is a rookie RB who doesn’t have the same kind of dependability as veterans Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I would still expect Ridley to get a handful of carries for the Patriots, as he’s the most explosive RB the team has, but he can’t become the goat in this game.
The Patriots also have to do a good job at forcing turnovers, whether that’s picking off Tebow, who has just six on the season, or forcing fumbles from Tebow, McGahee and the rest of the Broncos running backs. The Broncos rank 26th in turnover ratio on the season with -12, the have a tendency to be fumble prone, while also not being very adept at taking the ball away. That’s one of the reasons this match up is so strong for the Patriots.
GET OUT TO AN EARLY LEAD
This has been a major problem for the Patriots in recent weeks. It’s become a cycle that we’ve all gotten used to. The Patriots struggle mightily on both offense and defense to start the game off, everyone freaks out, my twitter feed is filled with “this team will never survive in the playoffs,” and then they pull everything together and all of a sudden look like a completely different team.
It’s worked, but how much longer can it? I don’t want to demean the Broncos and I don’t want to jinx anything, but the Patriots are getting a pretty easy opponent in the divisional round. If they Patriots can pull themselves out of this first quarter rut, this is the week to do it. Sure, they can probably survive getting off to a slow start against the Broncos, but it won’t work against Baltimore, Green Bay or New Orleans.
One of the keys to getting out to an early lead is for Brady and co. to come out firing. Last time these teams played, Aaron Hernandez had his best game as a pro with nine receptions, 129 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos might be keying in on him this week since they saw that last time around, but that will leave either Rob Gronkowski or Wes Welker’s mustache to burn them.
Last time around Denver’s old secondary allowed Chad Ochocinco to burn them for a thirty three yard touchdown. I’d like to see even more of that out of Ocho this week, though it is unlikely.
LIMIT BIG PLAYS
This means on both offense and defense. The Patriots can’t allow to get beat deep, they can’t allow twenty yard runs from Tebow or McGahee and they can’t allow any big sacks from Von Miller and the Broncos pass rush.
I don’t think any Patriots defensive back is talented enough to shut down Thomas and his big plays on their own, so they will need to place a safety over the top to help out. Luckily, he’s the Broncos only big threat in the passing game, so they can really key in on him.
The Patriots offensive line also has to come up big against Miller, Robert Ayers and company. It looks like we’ll have at least Sebastian Vollmer back this week, and it looks possible we’ll get Logan Mankins back as well. That would be huge, as it would mean that Nate Solder can go back to playing his third TE/T role where he’s really excelled.
If Mankins is out again this week, we’ll see either Ryan Wendell or Donald Thomas fill in for him. Both did very well in their one start of the season at LG.
Finally, I’d like to see the Patriots hit Tebow hard and hit him often. If he’s giving up his body for an option play, make him suffer for it. If he’s going back to pass, I want to see Mark Anderson, Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots pass rush to get in his face and hit him. Nothing will take Tebow out of the game, but I would like to make him think twice about tucking the ball in and taking off with it.
This is what we’ve waited all season for, I’m not expecting this Patriots team to disappoint us.