Fresh off their thrilling wild-card victory, the Denver Broncos (8-8) travel to Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots (13-3) in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on Saturday.
In what was considered the biggest surprise of wild-card weekend, the Broncos defeated the Steelers in overtime on Sunday, 29-23. This time, Denver will be on the road, and facing a team that had already beat them in Mile High.
On Dec. 18, the Broncos fizzled after the first quarter, as the Patriots rolled to a 41-23 victory. At the time, Denver was riding high, having won seven out of eight games with Tim Tebow as the starter.
Tebow remains a polarizing NFL figure as he has dominated headlines for his signature pose, his late-game performances, and his unorthodox throwing motion. The Broncos' win on Sunday highlighted a season in which Tebow was involved in multiple come-from-behind victories, and after an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas.
Perhaps forgotten amidst all of the Tebow hysteria is the fact that the Broncos had lost three games going into the wild card game, and Tebow was ineffective. The passing game remains a bit of a mystery for Denver, as the running game and the defense have been key contributing factors for the Broncos' unexpected season.
Denver averages a league-best 164.5 rushing yards per game, and is led by Willis McGahee. The former Pro Bowler rushed for nearly 1,200 yards in 2011, but managed only 61 yards on 19 carries against Pittsburgh. Lance Ball, who rushed for 402 yards on the season, only gained 11 yards against the Steelers.
The Broncos will be without one of Tebow's favorite targets. Wide receiver Eric Decker will be sidelined with a sprained medial collateral ligament. However, Tebow still has wide receivers Eddie Royal and Thomas, who are both coming off strong games against Pittsburgh.
The visitors will need to put up an exceptional performance at Gillette Stadium, where the home club has a 7-1 record this season. The Patriots have won eight games in a row, and have averaged better than 36 points per game in that stretch.
Tom Brady has shown little sign of slowing down. The 34-year-old quarterback is coming off one of his best seasons in the NFL. He threw for a career-high 5,235 yards, and passed for 39 touchdowns. Brady has experienced some shoulder problems recently, but should be fully ready this weekend.
While Wes Welker is still Brady's main target, the Patriots boast perhaps the best tight-end duo in recent memory. Rob Gronkowski had 90 receptions for 1,327 yards this season, while Aaron Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards.
The Patriots use a trio of running backs. BenJarvus Green-Ells, Danny Woodhead, and Stevan Ridley each failed to rush for 700 yards or more, but they combined for 122 yards against Denver in December.
While the Patriots' offense has been stellar, the defense has been rather questionable this season. New England's defense finished No. 31 in the league in average passing yards (293.9) and No. 17 in average rushing yards (117.1).
Broncos' safety Brian Dawkins is expected to be sidelined for the game.
LINE: The Patriots are favored by 14 points.
PREDICTION: While Tebow has provided a number of exciting plays this season, he will be on the road against one of the most efficient teams in the NFL. The Broncos will need to force turnovers, run the ball often, and have a big game on specials team. New England has been here before and the team is hungry to return to the Super Bowl. Expect Brady to hit Gronkowski and Hernandez often, as the Broncos' outside linebackers will have a busy day. Ultimately, New England should prevail simply because they are so proficient, and looked so good against Denver in December.
PREDICTED SCORE: Patriots over Broncos, 34-10