By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 12, 2006

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DENVER -- This may make you feel better.

Patriots/Broncos
Close-Up
What: AFC Divisional Playoff
Where: INVESCO Field at Mile High
Denver, Colorado
When: Saturday 1/14/06
8:00 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
2005 Team
Records:
Patriots 11-6
Broncos 13-3
Latest Line: Broncos by 3
As much as you would have liked your team to play in Indianapolis this weekend instead of Denver, it might comfort you to know that Bronco Nation would much rather be playing the Bengals right now instead of the Patriots. Coloradoans knew they'd get a bye and a home game, but didn't figure on that home game coming against the two-time champs. They were planning on nice and comfy Cincinnati as an easy precursor to a rematch at Indianapolis with a Colt team which has blown them out of the last two postseasons. Of course, this is them calling the Bengals "comfy", or at least that's what this comes off as sounding like.

But no. Pittsburgh won, and it's the Patriots who are coming to Denver, not the Bengals. It's the two-time champs, not a team making its first postseason appearance in 15 years. It's a team bent on a third straight Super Bowl win. It's a team together and healthy at just the right time. And it's a team out to exact revenge for a 28-20 loss back in Week 6 right here at Invesco Field.

Patriot Nation would rather be in Indianapolis too, perhaps. The Patriots play lousy here in Denver, as noted in this column back on Sunday night. Winning here has been few and far between, but the Patriots do own two wins in this city since 2000. A third one this Saturday night might rank amongst the biggest wins in team history, if they can pull it off.

How? Well, let's assume that Tom Brady does what he does and the offense basically hangs up a goodly number of points. The Patriots scored 30 here in 2003 and were on a fourth quarter roll in their loss this season. Brady will have a Brady-like night and be the main offensive star of the game. Now, how do they parlay that into a win?

Ignore the crowd

Altitude isn't the only problem in coming to play in Denver. The home crowd here is one of the noisiest in the NFL, as well as one of the most obnoxious.

Teams practice with loud music or high noise all the time in preparation for hostile environments just like this. The Patriots showed a great deal of poise last year, for example, when they went into Pittsburgh for the conference championship game (like this one, a rematch from a regular season blowout loss) and shut the home crowd up with a dominating win. They will need about ten times the poise this weekend that they had last year in the aforementioned game.

At Gillette Stadium, the fans yell "First down!" when the home team gets one. At Denver, the fans yell "Incomplete!" when the opposing quarterback misfires. Brady cannot allow himself to be psyched out by that stuff. As a rookie, Brady threw four interceptions in his first game here; earlier this year he misfired on 22 of 46 passes. The playoff atmosphere will bring out more energy from the home crowd. It is up to Brady to maintain his famous sense of poise and composure as he approaches this game.

McGinest, Colvin turn into mongooses

This only works if a later element is successful, and it will help another later element be successful. Let's assume that Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson aren't killing the Patriots with a consistent running attack. Wouldn't a hurried Jake "The Snake" (thus the {"mongoose" metaphor) Plummer for the rest of the game be just fine and dandy?

A sure sign of trouble for the Broncos is if Plummer has one of those old Arizona nights where he becomes a human brain cramp. To accomplish this, the Patriots need to get a fierce pass rush on Plummer and force him into quick throws. Rosevelt Colvin and Willie McGinest come into play here, bringing a big rush all game long, or at least once it is established that the run has been contained.

With McGinest's newfound status as the all-time postseason sack leader in league history, Shanahan and Gary Kubiak will stand up and take notice. This might set the stage for Colvin to have his finest game as a Patriot. Ty Warren and Richard Seymour could also factor in a good pass rush. But none of this can be pulled off if the Patriots cannot deal with the powerful Denver running attack.

Turning off the lightning "Rod"

Bill Parcells and Al Groh couldn't stop him. Neither could Pete Carroll and Steve Sidwell. Michael Felger of the Herald said on New England Sports Tonight that Rod Smith was the one Bronco which "scares" him, and with good reason.

The only good thing is that there no longer is Ed McCaffrey to deal with also, who seemed to kill the Patriots over the years more than Smith ever did. But make no mistake, Smith is a deadly weapon for the Broncos, and the Patriots must find a way to stop him. In the first game, Smith had six catches for 123 yards, including that infamous 72-yard bomb in the second quarter.

At least there will be no Duane Starks out there to cough up big plays. It will be interesting to see how Belichick deploys the cornerbacks. Ellis Hobbs has been the better cover corner over Asante Samuel, though the latter is not a rookie and has a little bit better grasp of the defense. Hobbs might be a good choice to cover Smith with Samuel on Ashley Lelie, if only for those tight cover skills.

But if Plummer does not get enough time to find his receivers, so much the better. Plummer won't find Smith if he doesn't have time to. Again, if Hobbs provides coverage, he may be able to jam Smith at the line of scrimmage and disrupt possible "hot read" plays. Because of the threat of the run, the Patriots may not be able to use exotic nickel and dime packages (read: Troy Brown plays only one way Saturday night). This will be a secondary bent on tight coverage and a short cushion if zone is used.

Ye shall not run the ball

Right here is the main key to a Patriot win.

Good thing the Patriots were number one in the league against the run over the final eight games of the season. Vince Wilfork, Tedy Bruschi (off the injury report) and Mike Vrabel bear the main burden of stopping the run. Artrell Hawkins might also come up and provide an eight-man box, but Belichick and Eric Mangini would prefer to need only seven men to do it.

The problem here is that in Bell and Anderson, the Broncos nearly had a 1,000-yard tandem (the first in the NFL since the 1985 Cleveland Browns with Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack). Wearing them down won't likely happen. It will simply come about as denying them the run without pounding them into submission.

Then you have the vaunted Bronco offensive line, coached by former special teams maven Rick Dennison. This unit, who never addresses the media at any time, has a reputation for dirty blocking (especially Foxborough's own Tom Nalen). They are also adept at zone blocking, blocking areas instead of individual players. Suffice it to say that Belichick and Mangini will have an answer for this scheme, but it is a battle that the Patriots can and must win for the game to be won.

No second chance against Belichick

This is not a coaching slamdunk. Shanahan is one of the more brilliant coaches in the league. But Belichick is the best, and can make game adjustments better than anyone in the league.

But that's not even the best part. It's a rematch. Even better, it's a rematch off of a loss. Belichick gets a second chance at both Shanahan and Plummer. If history holds true, this is the second most important element in the Patriots winning, but it will sound like the first.

Going back to 2001, the Patriots are 18-3 against teams whom they faced earlier in the season. And of the six rematches which were avenging early-season losses, the Patriots are a perfect 6-0 during that same time span. One of those wins was in Super Bowl XXXVI, where the Patriots avenged their final loss of that season (24-17 at home to the Rams) with a 20-17 win in the Big Show. Another of those wins was last year's AFC title game at Pittsburgh after coughing up a big loss on Halloween.

Belichick has the track record in besting opponents and quarterbacks he has seen before. Plummer has had a good year, and his one career playoff win was no cheapie (in Dallas with Arizona in 1998). But he is ripe for the picking, and if the run game can be contained, Plummer will be in for a hectic evening.

Finally, anyone is a fool who thinks that the first meeting between these two teams has any bearing on this game. Shanahan and his players know this all too well. The Patriots have their "A" team back on both sides of the ball. The Broncos know what not to expect. Belichick will try to make it so that they don't know what's coming.

Hopefully, Patriot Nation does. That would be a third straight AFC Championship Game.


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