By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 08, 2012

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The good news is you don't have to worry about a Pittsburgh-Baltimore perfecta. The bad news is you have to worry about Tim Tebow.

Again? We just went through this last month.

Denver was a home dog to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the only home dog of the weekend. And the point spread was 8 ½ points, a lot for a home team in the playoffs. But Pittsburgh was too injured to play up to their expected level, and Tebow played just well enough to get the Broncos into an overtime battle with the Steelers. In overtime, the first in NFL postseason history under the new rules, Tebow needed only one play to send his team to Foxborough. Tebow found Demariyus Thomas over the middle, hit him about midfield, and Thomas outran Ike Taylor to the end zone as Sports Authority Stadium exploded in a frenzy. Denver won, 29-23, and the Broncos will come to Gillette Stadium Saturday night in the Divisional Playoff round.

The Patriots are thus spared a double whammy from the AFC North, which was made a possibility thanks to Cincinnati losing to Houston on Saturday at Reliant Stadium. Yes, the Bengals are also from the AFC North, but Patriot Nation would greatly have preferred a first playoff game against Cincinnati rather than Pittsburgh, assuming a meeting with Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game would be in the offing. Even if the Patriots were to survive a tough battle with Pittsburgh, it would have hampered them against a possible date with the Ravens, whereas if Baltimore and Pittsburgh could knock the tar out of each other next week, the winner would be wounded against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and the Patriots would have a better chance to make it to Indianapolis.

But Denver, and Tebow, shocked the world by pulling the one upset of the weekend. All four home teams won, but the Bronco win was a sizable upset. Most every football expert picked Pittsburgh to win the game, but the Broncos overcame a lousy first quarter and built up a 20-6 lead on the Steelers, who were clearly affected by the loss of every starting defensive lineman and an obviously lame Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben did lead the Steelers on a fourth quarter comeback, but a defensive stand in the last seconds by the Bronco defense forced overtime, and Denver was able to advance to Foxborough on the one play, the 80-yard bomb from Tebow to Thomas.

Now, what should Patriot Nation make of this? Relief over not having to face Pittsburgh or anxiety over having to face Tebow again?

A few things need to be taken into consideration before accurately predicting next weekend.

First of all, if the Steelers had been healthy, especially on defense, there is little chance Denver would have won the game. When Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton were in there in the first quarter, the Denver offense managed only two three-and-outs. But neither Keisel nor Hampton were able to finish the game. And then there's the sad case of free safety Ryan Clark, who had to miss the game because an existing blood condition he has forbids him to play at this high altitude (the last time he played here he wound up losing his spleen and gall bladder). These three men could have made the difference in Tebow being a hero versus perhaps an ex-Bronco.

Second, the officiating in this game had some bad moments, especially on a blown call where Steeler wideout Mike Wallace dropped a backward pass from Roethlisberger, only to have the pass ruled incomplete and an early whistle blown, negating a possible challenge. There were a ton of missed facemask calls and questionable interference calls/non-calls. The Wallace play perhaps prevented Denver from winning the game in regulation, as the Steelers began their comeback from that moment forward.

That said, the Patriots do get a little bit of a break by facing Denver and not Pittsburgh. They do have a better record against Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger in the playoffs than they do against Denver, but this is the first time they get Denver at home and not on the road in the postseason. The Patriots know they can beat Denver and Tebow, because they were able to do so on December 18th, 41-23. As the Jets showed last year, what happens in the regular season means nothing in the playoffs, as the Patriots will have to prepare better than they have in their last two playoff meetings.

One thing the Patriots have not done in the last two seasons is to avoid getting "bushwhacked" by teams that seemed like easy wins. Baltimore has always been a bad road team with a substandard quarterback, but that 2009 playoff game was over in the first quarter. Then the Jets last year came into Foxborough in December and got shellacked, 45-3, but in the playoff game last January a Tom Brady interception early on spelled doom for the Patriots. The Patriots perhaps took these opponents lightly, and now once again this year you get an opponent which seems eminently beatable.

If the Patriots can get back to the old days where they were the underdogs and everyone assumed they would lose, they have a much better chance this year to win and advance. Tebow will get a lot of run this week, and everyone not based in New England will assume that the Lord will uplift Tebow all the way to the Super Bowl thanks to the wonderful new memories he created on Sunday night. Maybe this will put the Patriots back into the mindset which helped them win three Super Bowls last decade, in that the rest of the world is against them and thinks that they will be swept away in all the Tebowmania.

A good sign next Saturday night will be what kind of start they get off to. The win over Denver put the Patriots in the position to clinch home field throughout the playoffs if they could only get two measly wins at home against two woebegone division opponents, Miami and Buffalo. They wound up falling behind Miami, 17-0, and Buffalo, 21-0 before coming back to get those two "expected" wins. They ought not to fall behind Denver, and had better not, if they want to get to the AFC Championship Game. In the battle in Denver, the Patriots wound up falling behind early, 17-6, and then rallying to win. The Patriots need to make a statement early, and use their offensive superiority to put down the Broncos early and don't give Tebow and his teammates any prayer of winning the game.

Once again, the Patriots will be favored at home to win the game and advance to the AFC Championship Game. They will be expected to win, and they should win, but the Patriots will almost need to expect that they won't win if they want to advance. That will help them to prepare better and do the things in January that they used to do to win playoff games, especially home playoff games.

But you have to admit it, you have to be relieved that Pittsburgh won't be coming here. And that was one whale of a win by Denver, and one terrific play by Tebow. Enjoy another week of Tebowmania, and hopefully, a return to what the Patriot Way really is.


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