Spoke to a bunch of people in and around the league this week about New England-Denver/Tom Brady-Tim Tebow, and the truest point came from a coach who has faced both Bill Belichick and John Fox.
Said the coach: "I will bet you a hundred bucks one of Bill's big points with his team this week has been, 'This is the one week you really have to get out to a fast start.' Maybe play no huddle, but play fast whatever you do ... Don't let Denver dictate the game, and score the first two or three times you get it. That'll force Denver out of the game they want to play.''
Which, for Denver, is what?
"Take the air out of the ball. Keep it away from Brady. Have long drives, take time off the clock and get to the fourth quarter and have it be a one-score game.''
The most interesting part of the Sunday afternoon game in Denver, though, won't be Brady torching or not torching the Denver defense. It'll be what Belichick throws against Tebow. That's difficult to forecast, for three reasons. One: Belichick rarely does what you think he's going to do, and telegraphing it has never been his way. Two: Belichick has basically switched from the 3-4 to the 4-3 this year, and so it's hard for even his former disciples with him during the three-man-line days to know how the current 4-3 will morph into something to stop Tebow. (And as Eric Mangini told me Thursday: "Who knows? Maybe he'll play more 3-4 Sunday.'') Three: The Patriots haven't played an option team, so there's no track record to study.
I asked Denver coach John Fox about the chess game he plays every week with the opponent, and if this week's -- with Belichick trying to figure out what Tebow's going to do and vice-versa -- is any different.
"He's an incredible coach, probably the best there is, so he's seen everything,'' Fox said after Thursday's practice. "Playing a mobile quarterback who runs some different things than other teams in the league run is unique today, but not necessarily original. In coaching, it's not just what you know, it's what you can make your players execute. Bill's seen this before.''
And the question is, can his players stay in their gaps and prevent Tebow and Willis McGahee from running it down their throats? "For New England, the way Denver's been running inside is a problem,'' Mangini, the former Browns and Jets coach, now with ESPN, told me. "I would imagine it'll be tough for New England to stop them on the ground.''
Few teams have. Denver's averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and that's not all due to Tebow's slithery but power-when-needed style. The reborn Willis McGahee is getting 4.6 yards per rush. Though McGahee has a bruised knee and isn't fully healthy, he should be OK to carry a full load Sunday. The tough Lance Ball has developed into a physical relief pitcher for McGahee.
The fact is, this will turn into more than Belichick versus Tebow, but the aspect of the smartest defensive guy in the game against the most interesting offensive weapon will be the most compelling matchup of the year. I think what you'll see is Belichick loading the line, wide, with six or seven defenders consistently and being willing to let Tebow have single coverage, often with little or no safety help on good receivers like Eddie Royal and Eric Decker. The question is, what will he do with Demaryius Thomas?
Thomas is the real wild card here, because Tebow has become better throwing from the pocket, and the Patriots don't have a good matchup for Thomas downfield. Look at how much Tebow has used Thomas in the last two Denver victories. Against the Vikings and Bears, Thomas was targeted 20 times, catching 11 for 222 yards (20.2 average) and three TDs.
"The real edge for Denver is no one's figured a way to handle this untraditional offense for four quarters,'' said Mangini. "The fact Tebow becomes more viable from the pocket each week and has some good weapons is going to make it harder to just say, 'Let's concentrate on the run.' ''
True -- but this is where New England getting that big lead comes in. If the Patriots get one, the pass-rush can tee off on Tebow. Tebow was only three-of-18 passing in the first three quarters last week against Chicago, and that sort of pathetic efficiency is why Belichick likely has been harping on his team to start fast.
Finally, one thing I know will get your ire up, but I've got to say.
Josh McDaniels was run out of town on a rail a year ago. From his 2010 draft is the player setting the NFL on fire, Tebow. Demaryius Thomas came in that draft too, and after tearing his Achilles last January, now looks like the deep threat he was drafted to be. Would the current regime have drafted Thomas 22nd overall last year? Perhaps. Would it have drafted Tebow 25th overall last year? Certainly not. McDaniels will never get it in Denver, because he lost so much and was hated by the fan base, but he deserves credit for having the guts to take Tebow when he did. His faith in Tebow is being paid back now.
How ironic would it be Sunday if Josh McDaniels' two going-away presents ended up beating his old coach, Belichick ... while McDaniels was coaching out the string with a doomed staff in St. Louis?
Blaine Gabbert looks way too skittish. I only saw parts of the Atlanta beatdown of Gabbert and the Jags -- thank God -- but I've thought this for some time now: He has poor pocket feel. He's certainly under more pressure than a quarterback should be if he wants to have success. But watch him enough and you see him either escaping the pocket too early without waiting for his routes to develop, or having a poor feel of bodies around him. It's odd that a guy who has played so much football can't move in the pocket and avoid bodies, but Gabbert is really having a tough time with that part of the game.
His accuracy is grim (50.6 percent in 13 games), and he doesn't throw a very catchable ball. Now, I will blame his receivers for some of the problems last night, and recently. I don't know that I've seen a worse three-man group leading a team's receiving corps: Jarrett Dillard, Chastin West and Taylor Price. That's awful, obviously. And so are the 2011 Jaguars.