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Playoff preview: Broncos-Patriots

If there's one team facing pressure this week, it's the heavily favored Patriots. New England is 13-3, the No. 1 seed in the AFC and a team that wins with machine-like regularity. Bill Belichick's crew boasts 13 or more victories in five of the past nine seasons, a pace no franchise in history has come close to matching.

The Green Bay Packers, for example, have won more championships than any other NFL team. They have reached 13 or more wins just five times in their illustrious 91-year history (including 15 this year).

Once again, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxboro, where the Pats have lost just three times since 2006 with Brady under center.

But that heaping plate of success in the regular season has been followed by a very thin gruel on the gridiron in the playoffs. Two of those three home losses have come in the postseason, a part of the schedule where the Patriots have not won a game anywhere since the 2007 season.

New England, in other words, has been a paper tiger since its last Super Bowl victory back in 2004. It's a team that dominates in the regular season but habitually gets bounced from the playoffs by teams it should beat.

The 2006 Patriots went 12-4 and dominated the Colts in the AFC title game, before suffering the greatest second-half collapse in conference championship history.

The record-setting 2007 Patriots went 16-0, and entered the Super Bowl 18-0, before suffering one of the great upset losses in history, falling 17-14 to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

The 2009 Patriots went just 10-6, then were humiliated at home by the 9-7 Ravens in the first round of the playoffs, 33-14.

The 2010 Patriots went 14-2 and were bounced from the playoffs, again at home, this time by the division-rival Jets.

The Patriots need to win to justify their 13-3 season, prove they're something more than regular-season heroes and reverse a trend in which the team had golden opportunities to win Super Bowls and utterly underwhelmed in the playoff pressure cooker.

The Broncos, meanwhile, head out East with almost nothing to lose -- beyond, obviously, a game that few expect them to win. But even with a loss, Denver's season already featured more thrills than a family weekend at Wally World.

The Broncos were 4-12 last season and the 2011 season looked like more of the same after a 1-4 start. Enter quarterback Tim Tebow, who most experts said couldn't play QB in the NFL. Since then, the Denver faithful have enjoyed one improbable win after another (four of them in overtime), a confluence of circumstances that handed Denver a division title with an 8-8 record and last week's thrilling overtime victory against the heavily favored Steelers. Even with a loss, the story of Denver's season already has an air of success and the feel of forward momentum for the franchise.

2. New England's schedule in 2011 was softer than a cute little Snuggie.

If there's a legitimate statistical and historical reason to doubt the validity of New England's No. 1 seed and 13-3 record, it's the fact that they faced one cream puff after another -- and then lost each time they faced something close to the iron of the NFL. New England did not beat a single team with a winning record in the 2011 season.

We track something over at Cold, Hard Football called Quality Standings -- how well you perform against Quality Teams, or teams with winning records. It's an effective way to separate the contending wheat from the pretending chaff each NFL season. Super Bowl champs typically prove along the way that they can consistently beat Quality Opponents. And that historic fact is not good news for the Patriots.

Not only did they face fewer Quality Opponents than any team in football this year (two), but also they lost to both of them (Steelers, Giants). Would the Patriots have gone 13-3 had they faced eight Quality Opponents like the lowly 2-14 Rams? What if they faced the league-high 10 Quality Opponents who made the Peyton Manning-less season in Indianapolis such a daunting challenge?

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History responds with an emphatic no.

Here's a look at the Quality Standings for all 12 playoff teams, at the end of the regular season.

Green Bay --5-0Baltimore -- 6-1New Orleans -- 6-1San Francisco -- 4-1Houston -- 4-3Pittsburgh -- 4-4Atlanta -- 2-4N.Y. Giants -- 1-3Denver -- 1-4Cincinnati -- 1-6New England -- 0-2Detroit -- 0-5

It's almost impossible to go through an entire season facing just two teams with a winning record. We understand the Patriots could only play the schedule handed to them. So it's not a criticism. But it is a Cold, Hard Football Fact: the Patriots benefited from a weak schedule.

The greatest Patriots teams, meanwhile, consistently beat great opponents. For example, only three teams in history beat 10 Quality Opponents in a single season: the 1979 Super Bowl champion Steelers (10-3); the 2003 Super Bowl champion Patriots (10-0, best record ever against Quality Teams); and the 2004 Super Bowl champion Patriots (10-1).

There is one notable precedent for overcoming a weak schedule: Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf Rams faced just one Quality Opponent in the regular season before their Super Bowl-winning run. Ironically, it was the 13-3 Titans, the same team they'd meet in the Super Bowl, and who handed St. Louis one of its three losses.

You can see what a difference the schedule made. The average game for the 2009 Rams was an 18-point victory. Then they won by 12, 5 and 7 in the playoffs, hanging on in the Super Bowl rematch with the Titans with just inches to spare.

3. The Broncos gave away the game when these two teams met in December.

The Patriots beat the Broncos 41-23 in Denver on Dec. 18. It's a dominant final score by the standards of the NFL. But the game unfolded quite a bit differently than the final score might indicate.

The Broncos struck first, a nine-yard Tebow touchdown run, and held a surprising 16-7 lead in the second quarter. The Patriots were utterly incapable of stopping Denver on the ground early in the game. In the fact, the Broncos galloped for an almost unbelievable 167 yards in the first quarter. The Patriots ran for four.

But then Denver simply fell apart in the second quarter -- against a New England team famed for making its opponents pay for their mistakes. Running back Lance Ball, who otherwise had a good day (11 carries, 64 yards), fumbled with 8:31 to play in the first half. The Patriots turned that fumble into a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and their first lead of the game, 17-16.

Tebow fumbled on the very next drive. The Patriots turned that mistake into a one-yard Brady touchdown run and a 24-16 lead.

Then, with just three seconds to play in the half, Quan Cosby muffed a punt return. The Patriots again recovered, this time at the Denver 16. Gostkowski booted a gift field goal and New England entered intermission with a commanding 27-16 lead.

It was a devastating series of events that killed the Broncos in a game in which they were surprisingly competitive before shooting themselves in the foot three times in the span of eight game-changing minutes.

The Patriots have generated plenty of headlines for a defense that surrendered 4,977 passing yards this year. Only the Packers gave up more (4,988). In fact, they're the two worst pass defenses in history, at least in terms of passing yards allowed.

But Denver, not New England, is the team with the truly crippling weakness on pass defense -- provided you look at the right indicator, the one that correlates to victory on the field far more often.

For example, New England and Green Bay went a combined 28-4 and each is the No. 1 seed in its respective conference. Clearly, the volume of passing yards you give up is not that important. (Conversely, the volume of pass yards you produce on offense is not that important, either. The last QB to lead the NFL in passing yards AND win a championship was Johnny Unitas, way back in 1959. Sorry, Drew Brees.)

There is a much, much better way to rate each pass defense. It's called Defensive Passer Rating, and it simply takes the formula used to measure quarterbacks and applies it to pass defense. It has a very high correlation to victory, and champions have historically dominated the indicator. In fact, the 2010 Super Bowl champion Packers and the 2010 Super Bowl runner-up Steelers finished Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in Defensive Passer Rating.

The 2011 Defensive Passer Rating chart is very bad for Denver. Here's a look at the final eight remaining in the NFL playoffs, as measured by Defensive Passer Rating.

There are four teams on the list with pass defenses so bad that you normally don't see them in playoff contention (only three teams in history won championships with a DPR worse than 80.0 and none worse than 83.4). But clearly, the 2011 season was different, with so many passing records falling.

Even with that said, Denver is a clear outlier. It's easily the worst pass defense among the remaining playoff contenders. In fact, it's something of a statistical miracle the Broncos are even in the playoffs. There have been 56 teams in NFL history with a Defensive Passer Rating of 93.0 or worse. Only two have reached the postseason before the Broncos: the 2004 Packers and the 2008 Cardinals. The Packers failed to win a playoff game. The Cardinals actually reached the Super Bowl. It should be noted that each had a future Hall of Fame QB on offense: Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, respectively.

It's all very bad news for a Denver defense staring down the barrel of New England's virtually unstoppable passing attack. Tom Brady already shredded that poor pass defense once this year. In the Week 15 showdown at Denver, he completed 23 of 34 passes for 320 yards, 2 TDs, zero interceptions and a 117.3 passer rating.

There's no reason to believe he won't do it again in his own stadium.

Denver's biggest problem is an inability to generate turnovers: just nine interceptions all year. Compare that to the 23 picked off by the Patriots and 49ers, or the NFL-best 31 hauled in by the Packers.

The better teams in the NFL have survived by forcing those game-changing plays, something the Broncos have failed to do all year.

The Patriots and Broncos combined for 64 points and 844 yards in December. The Patriots did it through the air (320 yards, 2 TDs). The Broncos did it on the ground (252 yards, 3 TDs). There's little reason to expect things to unfold differently.

One thing that will be different: You can't count on New England winning the turnover battle, 3-0, as they did in the last game. Those turnovers changed the course of the game and helped hand the Patriots a bigger victory than they might have otherwise earned.

New England 33, Denver 23