Tim Tebow will look to build on a hot streak as the playoff-hopeful Denver Broncos (8-5) host the American Football Conference East division-leading New England Patriots (10-3) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday.
It has been a wild ride for Tebow. The second-year quarterback started the season as the third-string backup, but as a starter he has helped the Denver squad win six games in a row, and all by a slim margin. Tebow has been particularly strong against the prevent defense in the fourth quarter.
Tebow is having a season somewhat reminiscent of the one Vince Young had with the Tennessee Titans in 2009. Replacing Kerry Collins, Young led the Titans to an 8-2 record as a starter that season, despite putting up erratic statistics. Like Young, Tebow has an unorthodox throwing motion, but is a threat to run, which can be a major problem for defenses.
To some experts, the Broncos' recent success has been the result of an efficient long-range kicking game, a strong rushing game, and a defense that finds a way to hold opposing offenses under 14 points.
Playing on the road against the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 4, Denver's defense conceded 32 points, in its lone poor performance during the team's recent renaissance. In that game, the Broncos played without linebacker Von Miller, who is probably the favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Miller returned against Chicago, when he recorded five tackles and a sack.
The Broncos' running game has been effective in recent games due in part to an offensive line that has been particularly strong this season, along with some gritty performances by Willis McGahee. The veteran running back struggled against the Bears, but has rushed for more than100 yards in six of 12 games this season.
Special teams has improved for Denver in recent weeks, as well. Broncos' kicker Matt Prater has converted eight of his last nine field-goal attempts, and against the Bears on Sunday, he had two kicks that split the uprights from beyond 50 yards.
Head coach John Fox may need all the momentum that Denver can muster against the Patriots. Although the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers appears to have the Most Valuable Player award locked up, Tom Brady is having a fantastic second half this season. In the last five games, Brady has thrown 13 touchdowns and only one interception.
While the New England offense has clicked under Brady, the defense has struggled. The Patriots are last in the NFL in average total yards allowed per game, but are ranked 12th in average points allowed per game.
Head coach Bill Belichick may have a concern with the team's overall performance the last two weeks. Against the lowly Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, New England prevailed by only seven points in each case. Previous to those two games, New England won in three straight blowouts.
The Patriots have listed safety Patrick Chung and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer as doubtful for Sunday. There are several players who are listed as questionable, including wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, running back Danny Woodhead, cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty, safety James Ihedigbo, and linebacker Brandon Spikes.
With Welker and Branch each at less than 100 percent, Brady will likely look to tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the latter of whom almost certainly will be a Pro Bowl selection.
The Patriots are well aware of how the Broncos have surged in recent weeks, and the overall improvement of the club since the start of the season.
The Broncos are a real good football team, they're playing well, said Belichick. It's going to take a solid effort in all three phases from everybody in order to be competitive with them. Hopefully we'll be able to get that.
LINE: Patriots are favored by 8.5 points.
OVER/UNDER: 46.5 points.
PREDICTION: Don't expect the Broncos to be involved in another nail-biter, as was the case during the past several weeks. Tebow might just have the opposite game to his recent performances -- he could come out firing and tire in the final quarter. The Patriots have an excellent offense and a suspect defense, and that means this could be a shootout, even with several New England players listed as questionable. Unlike previous games, Tebow probably won't see a prevent defense all that much, so fourth-quarter heroics may not be in the cards. The Patriots will be playing in a high altitude and facing a defense that should be able to hold them to about 30 points, but Brady is so good at dissecting defenses that another 300-yard game is probable.
PREDICTED SCORE: Patriots over Broncos, 30-20.