FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady is on his usual late-season roll. He’d just like to stop his recent playoff slide.
The quarterback with tunnel vision, focusing on the next practice and the next game, is on an eight-game winning streak. That may be a better sign of how his next one will go than his three-game postseason losing streak.
A win on Saturday night would send Brady and the New England Patriots to the AFC championship game and end the Tebowmania season of the Denver Broncos.
Preparing for the upcoming game is all Brady cares about.
“I haven’t thought about anything about last year or last week,” he said before practice this week. “I’m trying to think about today.”
Before last week’s bye, the Patriots (13-3) scored 49 straight points and beat the Buffalo Bills 49-21. During the winning streak, Brady has thrown for 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. An acknowledged plodder, he’s even run for three touchdowns in his last three games.
In the last four regular-season games over his 10 seasons as a starter, he is 34-6.
Brady’s success has made an impression on Tebow.
He can learn, Tebow said, from “being able to watch a quarterback like that — how he handles himself, the emotion that he plays with but at the same time the calmness that he plays with, the accuracy, the leadership, the way he motivates his players, the way he gets in and out of great plays, the way he’s able to handle any situation.”
Except, lately, the playoffs.
Brady won his first 10 postseason games and three Super Bowls. He was 14-2 before having a drastic reversal with three consecutive losses — 17-14 to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl of the 2007 season, 33-14 to the Baltimore Ravens two years ago and 28-21 to the New York Jets last year. Those last two were at home.
How long did it take for him to get over the loss to the Jets?
“I don’t know,” Brady said. “I don’t remember.”
Other Patriots haven’t forgotten the post-season slide.
“It sits in all of our minds for the guys that have been here and been a part of that,” tackle Matt Light said. “You work that much, you put that much time into a season, you have success to a degree during the regular season and then you go out and you can’t get it done in the postseason. That’s a difficult thing to swallow.”
The Broncos (9-8) want to make that even tougher.
They lost their last three regular-season games but still made the playoffs as champions of the weak AFC West.
Then they beat Pittsburgh 29-23 on an 80-yard pass play from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime last Sunday. But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethsliberger was limited by a bad ankle and running back Rashard Mendenhall was sidelined with a knee injury.
The Patriots figure to pose a much tougher challenge. That’s why they’re two-touchdown favorites.
The Broncos, on their home field, already have lost to them this season. Denver rushed for 167 yards in the first quarter, led 16-7, but committed three turnovers in the second and lost 41-23 on Dec. 18.
“We made mistakes. They exposed those mistakes. Obviously, our tackling in space needs to be better,” Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “Obviously, we’ve got to get more pressure on Tom Brady somehow, someway, and affect him more. I think we hit him a couple of times in the pocket, sacked him twice, but we didn’t really affect him enough in the pocket, and we’ve got to find ways to do that.”
That’s where linebackers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil come in.
“Those guys are fast and explosive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They can go inside, outside, power rush, occasionally drop into coverage, make a lot of plays from behind. They’re strong at the point of attack. They’re very good, very good.”
Against the Steelers, rookie Miller got only his second sack in the five games he’s played with a cast to protect a torn ligament on his right thumb. He had 11 1/2 in the regular season and said his thumb is feeling better.
But before he can tackle Brady, he has to get to the quarterback.
“He stays pretty shallow in the pocket,” Miller said. “You’ve just got to be able to beat your guy quickly.”
In the regular season, the Broncos did a decent job on stars Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, limiting each to four catches. But tight end Aaron Hernandez stepped up with nine receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Dumervil said. “We also feel confident with our guys. We’ve just got to play sound, play smart and, I think, no blown assignments. Everybody does their job and executes, and it will give us a good chance.”
Safety Quinton Carter said the Broncos made many mistakes on their pass coverage assignments.
“There were a lot of big catches and guys wide open with nobody defending them,” he said.
Belichick hasn’t seen a tight-end combination with such receiving skills very often in his 37 NFL seasons.
“I see it every day in practice,” he said.
Now its Denver’s turn to face that formidable pair a month after its first encounter.
“They’ve got tough matchups They’re all great players,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “Tom’s as good as anybody at finding those matchups and it will come down to that again this time, I’m sure.”
Brady didn’t do enough of that in his last two playoff games.
Two years ago against the Ravens, Brady threw for 154 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions and was sacked three times.
Last year, the Jets sacked him five times, he threw an interception on his first series and he never got the lead back after New York went ahead 7-3 five minutes into the second quarter.
Light isn’t sure how much those two losses hurt the quarterback whose blind side he’s protected since 2001.
“I haven’t talked with him about it, but he doesn’t typically take losing too well,” Light said with a grin. “I’ve noticed that over the years.”