ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The national television ratings revealed how keenly last Sunday’s Broncos-Patriots game was anticipated: with a 19.5 national overnight Nielsen rating, it was the highest-rated game of the season and CBS’ most-watched regular-season game in four years.
But this week’s game is more significant.
CBS will send its top broadcast crew to Orchard Park, N.Y. to follow the Broncos for a second consecutive week and a third time this season; the Jim Nantz-Phil Simms broadcast crew only aired three Broncos games from 2008-10.
Of course, that only has an impact if you pay attention to it.
Quarterback Tim Tebow doesn’t seem like the type of man who would. For that matter, he says he hasn’t even watched the Saturday Night Live sketch that involved Jesus Christ visiting the Broncos’ locker room and counseling the quarterback to “tone it down.”
If he wouldn’t take note of being skewered so publicly, then it’s easy to see how the national media hysteria over last week’s game wouldn’t ruffle him one bit.
“Honestly, we didn’t pay too much attention to it,” he said. “It was probably bigger hype and bigger game outside (the team). To us, it was the next game.”
“I prepared the exact same way I would any week. I don’t think that will be a big adjustment or issue.”
But the breathing room at the press conferences of John Fox and Tebow after the Broncos’ two-hour practice Tuesday showed that for the moment, the Broncos don’t sit on the tip of tongues beyond the Rocky Mountains.
That’s fine, but it’s also misleading, since Sunday’s loss cost the Broncos almost nothing, but a win Saturday — coupled with an Oakland loss at Kansas City — could give the Broncos everything they want: a playoff appearance that would have to rank as the most unexpected, least likely postseason trip relative to preseason expectations since the charmed fall of 1977.
That season, the Broncos played on Christmas Eve. It was a Saturday, just like this week. It was the first playoff game in club history, unlike this week. But Saturday’s game represents the first time in three years that the Broncos will begin a game knowing there’s a chance they could leave it as a playoff team.
For players who arrived in 2009, the closest thing they know to this game is that year’s Week 16 game in Philadelphia, when their remote chances of clinching a wild-card slot that day evaporated when Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore earlier in the afternoon. Twenty-two current Broncos were with the team then.
The last time the Broncos took the field with a chance to leave it as a playoff participant, they got drummed 52-21 at San Diego in Mike Shanahan’s final game as Denver head coach. Just 13 current Broncos are left from that experience.
Coincidentally, 13 Broncos who started Sunday against the Patriots weren’t with the Broncos two years ago — a group that includes nine draft picks and one undrafted free agent who’ve joined the team the last two years.
This is new territory — a game in which so much is on the line, but also a game in which Tebow and the young Broncos hope to apply the lessons learned in an 18-point loss to the Patriots.
The most pertinent lesson is ball security. After losing just nine fumbles in the first 11 games of the season, the Broncos have lost six in the last three — including three out of Tebow’s grasp.
“That was something we have to be more focused on,” Tebow said. “I just have to be more aware. We have to make a more concerted effort to hang onto the ball.”
The fumbles are the most visible mistakes, but others have to be fixed: tackling, poorly-timed penalties, missed assignments, dropped passes. The Broncos could get by against the Vikings and Bears, but couldn’t against the Patriots — and might not against the Bills, who despite their modest 5-9 record have wins over the Raiders, Giants and — you guessed it — Patriots to their credit.
Further, only one of their six games at Ralph Wilson Stadium this year has been decided by more than seven points. Once again, the Broncos could be drawn into a game where one play — or one mistake — decides their fate.
“We can play a good team, but you have no room for error,” said cornerback Champ Bailey.