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Pats, Broncos square off in season's most hyped matchup

New England Patriots (10-3) at Denver Broncos (8-5)

1. Be prepared for "Air Tebow." After going seven straight starts without topping 200 yards through the air, Tim Tebow has hit that mark in back-to-back outings. The chances that he makes it three in a row are pretty high, given how much New England has struggled to defend the pass this season.

The Patriots enter Sunday's showdown dead last in the NFL in pass defense -- and it's not even close. At 308.7 yards-per-game allowed, New England has given up 20 more yards per game than the league's No. 31 pass defense (Green Bay). In fact, the Patriots have allowed fewer than 250 yards passing in just two games this season, against the Jets and Chiefs, both New England wins.

Denver will try its best to get Tebow, Willis McGahee and the rest of the run game going early. But even last Sunday against Chicago, the Broncos opened the playbook earlier than normal, with Tebow dropping to pass on four of Denver's first six plays.

"They just do a lot of things well," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Broncos. "They run the ball well. They have a little bit of an option game, they throw it well, play-action, throw the ball down the field to some big receivers who can go up and get it. It's no one-man band; we'll get tested across the board."

Tebow would have had an even bigger game against Chicago if not for a plethora of drops from his receiving corps. The Patriots might not get so lucky this Sunday.

2. Clinching the AFC East just the first step in Patriots' climb. New England can lock up the division with a win or a Jets loss Sunday (or a tie plus a Jets loss or tie, but let's not go down Ridiculous Playoff Scenario Boulevard, if we can avoid it). Whether the Patriots secure the AFC East crown this week or over the season's final two weeks, it's inevitable that it will happen at some point.

The Patriots have their sights set on a bigger target, though -- namely, the top spot in the AFC.

As things stand right now, New England loses tiebreakers to both Houston and Baltimore, which means it needs some help to secure a first-round bye or home-field throughout the playoffs. Losing any of their final three games would just about guarantee that the Patriots hit the road at some point during the postseason.

Avoiding a postseason road game might not even be as important as claiming a bye. The good news there is if both the Patriots and Texans win out to get to 13-3, New England would swipe the tiebreaker edge back from Houston.

3. Someone has to lose sometime ... right? Just five teams in the league head into Week 15 with ongoing win streaks of five games or longer, and two of them meet in this one. Denver has run off six straight to New England's five, with the Patriots' Nov. 6 loss to the Giants standing as the last loss for either team; the Broncos haven't been taken down since a blowout home loss to Detroit on Oct. 30.

"This has been a fun ride," Denver coach John Fox said after his team's improbable win over the Bears. "I don't think we're done yet."

Believe it or not, the Patriots have not won in Denver since Nov. 3, 2003. Since then, they've gone 0-3 in the Mile High City and 1-4 overall against the Broncos. New England's last trip to Denver came in Week 5 of the 2009 season, when Belichick protégé Josh McDaniels was at the Broncos' helm.

That game ended with Matt Prater drilling a 41-yard field goal in overtime, followed by McDaniels exuberantly celebrating in front of the Denver crowd.

The home fans ought to be just as jacked up Sunday for another huge game, especially if the Broncos are the ones who manage to stay red hot.

The Broncos were maybe one play away from losing to the Bears in overtime last week, when linebacker Wesley Woodyard reached out and stripped the ball from Marion Barber's hands, forcing the turnover that led to Denver's victory. Though he isn't listed as a starter, Woodyard leads the Broncos in tackles with 83 and has carved out a critical role within the defense. The three-time team captain is 1-1 in his career against Tom Brady and the Patriots, but he knows few teams in the league are playing with the Broncos' confidence right now.

On the overtime play against the Bears, Marion Barber looked for a split second like he might be headed for the end zone. Were you trying to strip the ball there or was it just an act of desperation?

The whole game, their game plan was stretching the strongside and cutting it back. When I saw (Barber) do that, I knew I couldn't get a head-up tackle. I saw the ball, so I reached out and pulled for it.

Your team obviously has shown a knack for rallying late. But beyond the belief on your own sideline that you can do that, do you think you have a mental edge on your opponents now?

It definitely plays a part. I know when we scout teams, we say that we've got to take advantage when we have opportunities and can't let teams linger. We've been finishing good, and other teams notice that. We just have to make sure that the game is in our control.

Have you ever seen or been around anything like the Tim Tebow phenomenon that's engulfed your team?

I've never seen anything like it. Playing against him in college (Woodyard starred at Kentucky), I see why (Florida) had so much success. I've never seen an athlete so able to make the team come together, turn things around and find a way to win.

You were 2-5 before this six-game win streak. I'm assuming it's not all because of the quarterback change, so can you pinpoint the reasons for this turnaround?

It's our locker room, the whole vibe and the feeling that we have. We've become more like brothers. When you have a group of guys who believe and love each other genuinely, you're bound to get better.

Von Miller has been a huge addition this season. What type of impact has he had on the defense?

It brings a lot to our team, having him on the side with Elvis (Dumervil). The other team can't just sit back and spy on Elvis -- it's a great complement to have them both around. Teams can't just focus on one or the other.

Another big game this week -- the Patriots are the highest-scoring team in the AFC. You've seen them twice in your career. How do you go about stopping them this time?

It starts with (Tom) Brady, you can't let him get comfortable in the pocket. We can't let him sit back. We've got to continue to do what we've been doing. We need to get turnovers -- the coverage has to support the rush, and the rush has to support the coverage.

In the last 10 NFL seasons, the single-season 1,000-yard rushing mark has been eclipsed 162 times (with 14 more running backs less than 200 yards away this season). The Patriots' backs have topped that mark just twice during the past decade of football.

They don't figure to get there this year, either -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis currently leads the team on the ground with 618 yards, meaning he'd have to average 127.3 yards rushing over the final three weeks of the season to hit 1,000.

Here's a season-by-season look at the Patriots' top backs since 2002 and how they compare to the rest of the league.

Two of the league's most polarizing quarterbacks -- Brady and Tebow -- should put on a show. It'll be fascinating to see how much Denver lets Tebow take to the air, and the matchup of Denver's sensational pass rush against Brady and the Pats' offensive line is a very intriguing one.

For as much publicity as Tebow has earned during this win streak, there's no way it would be happening without the play of the Denver defense. Other than maybe San Diego, though, there has not been an opponent on the Broncos' schedule during that run with the offensive firepower that New England brings to the table.

Expect plenty of highlight-reel plays, a game that goes down to the wire ... and a New England victory.

Patriots 31, Broncos 27

Last week's pick: Cowboys 20, Giants 13Last week's result: Giants 37, Cowboys 34SI.com season record: 10-4

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