FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On the first series of their regular-season meeting, the Denver Broncos rushed for 73 yards against the New England Patriots. By the end of the first quarter, that total reached 167.
When the game was over, though, the Patriots had a 41-23 win.
New England, as expected, made the necessary adjustments to control Tim Tebow and Co. Of course, the mission was helped by a hamstring injury that knocked Denver running back Willis McGahee out of the game in the third quarter.
But, in take two on Saturday night, as a heavy favorite to win the rematch, the Patriots would much rather shut down Denver’s ground game from the start of this AFC divisional round game.
“We can’t go out and fall behind early. It will be a long day for us if we do that,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We definitely have to tackle better. (Tebow) is tough in the pocket and he’s tough out of the pocket.”
Tebow led the Broncos with 93 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries against the Patriots on Dec. 18. McGahee picked up 70 yards on seven rushes and Lance Ball rushed for 64 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown, on 11 attempts.
“We’re excited,” Ball said. “As an offense, (offensive) line, running backs, we’re excited to go out there and prove again that we can run the ball.”
Denver’s 252 yards rushing in that game were its second most this season, but many teams had trouble stopping its rushing attack. The Broncos led the NFL with a team record 164.5 yards per game.
Tebow threw for just 194 yards in that game with no completion longer than 39. But last Sunday, he had 316 yards passing with four pass plays covering at least 40. An 80-yarder to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime gave the Broncos a 29-23 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round.
“They’ve made changes,” Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said. “You can see, definitely, with the last game, just taking more shots down the field and they throw some balls up there and they have guys that can come down with them and make good catches. They definitely threw some more vertical passes.”
Tebow doesn’t expect to see the same defense either.
“I feel like every game they go into they have a different game plan,” he said.
One thing seems certain. The Patriots will make sure they try to keep Tebow from turning the corner and running for big chunks of yardage. But his strength makes him a dangerous inside rusher, too.
“He’ll go anywhere,” Wilfork said. “We can’t be out of rush lanes. We can’t be thrown off blocks. We have to play with good technique, trust our technique, trust one another, just trust that the guy next to you is doing his job. Do that and we’ll be OK.
“But times when you don’t do that, it’s just that little crack or that little second. You might not think they can find it, but a good team and a good football player will find it, which they’ve done. They’ve done that a lot this year.”
They certainly did it a lot against the Patriots.
The Broncos ran on eight of nine plays of the opening drive vs. New England, with Tebow scrambling off right guard for a 9-yard touchdown. On their next series, McGahee ran 29 yards on the first play, Tebow then completed a 22-yard pass to Thomas and Ball finished it with his 32-yard score.
They didn’t stop there.
The next possession, in fact, featured runs of 12 yards by Ball and 19 by Tebow that led to a 26-yard field goal by Matt Prater and a 16-7 lead less than two minutes into the second. But three second-quarter turnovers were costly for Denver.
The Patriots opened the game in a 4-3 defense but relied more on the 3-4 after the Broncos ran wild.
“Four weeks ago is four weeks ago and they’re a different team now,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said, “some injuries, different players. … I honestly feel they have (improved) because they’re still in the playoffs.”
Against the Steelers last Sunday, the Broncos gained more than twice as many yards passing as they did rushing, picking up just 131 yards on the ground. McGahee led them with 61 yards on 19 carries.
During the regular season, he rushed for 100 or more yards in seven games, tied for the most in the NFL. He was headed for another 100-yard game until he was hurt six minutes into the third quarter on a 6-yard run against the Patriots. By that time, New England led 27-16, but Denver had lost a key player who had made the rushing game so productive.
“I think I had a big (role in) that because at the beginning of the game I was in there until I tweaked my hammy,” McGahee said, “and then I was out, and it was really a difference maker for us. So I think that had a lot to do with it.”
Now he’s back, Tebow never left and Ball can still produce.
So the Patriots defense can’t divert its attention from the ground game just because Tebow showed last Sunday that he can throw long, accurate passes.
“They have a good mix offensively,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “If you play everybody up (on the line), they’ll go downfield. If you drop everybody off, they’ll take what’s underneath and run the ball. They do a good job of attacking where the defense is soft. They can go inside, outside, short, deep. They’re well balanced.”