Five Things to Watch: Divisional Playoff Edition

Willis McGahee

McGAHEE: ... knows that Patriots expect the Broncos "to bring the power."

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Five things to watch in the Broncos’ divisional-playoff duel with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. on Saturday night:

1. RUN, RUN, RUN? NOT QUITE.

The Broncos had never lost when rushing for more than 250 yards — until the 41-23 defeat to the Patriots on Dec. 18. Therefore, it’s not enough for the Broncos to simply run the football effectively — even though in the first quarter they stampeded to a 16-7 lead and exceeded 150 rushing yards.

“I think they’re going to expect to try to stop us from running the ball,’re going to run the ball regardless of the situation,” said running back Willis McGahee. “I think that’s what they expect, that we’ll bring the power. I think they watched some of that Pittsburgh film and New England will try to do some of those things.”

But the Patriots don’t have the strength in the secondary to cheat as many men into the box as the Steelers did — and the world saw how well that over-commitment to the run worked when Tim Tebow found Demaryius Thomas in single coverage on the first play of overtime with the safeties effectively out of the play. Their confidence in each other — and Tebow’s faith in Eddie Royal and Daniel Fells, each of whom had deep receptions last week — could expose the Patriots on the back end.

Then, there’s Tebow’s faith in himself. He’s still prone to overshooting wide-open receivers, as he did twice last week, and it’s doubtful that issue will be fixed until he can experience his first full NFL offseason. But he didn’t let those wobbles tip him over last Sunday, and he needs to ensure the same is true Saturday night, because the Broncos will have to put the football in his left arm at some point and let him fling it if they’re to pull of the upset.

2. THE GIVEAWAY/TAKEAWAY RATIO.

Above all, where the Broncos lost to the Patriots — and to the Buffalo Bills six days later, and even to the Chiefs a fortnight after the New England game — was on turnovers. Three second-quarter fumbles against New England and four second-half giveaways in Buffalo doomed both efforts to failure; Tebow’s second-quarter fumble against Kansas City on New Year’s Day scuttled a promising drive and changed the tenor of the game. Seven days later, a McGahee fumble set up Pittsburgh’s game-tying score.

At the minimum, the Broncos must avoid turnovers, given how much they’ve cost the Broncos in the past month. But they need to go a step further and force them. The best opportunity is on fumbles, which comes down to the first man who gets to Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez or anyone else who catches the football either making the stop or — better yet — holding them up long enough for teammates to arrive, setting up strip-the-ball situations.

3. THE SNAPPER FACTOR.

David Binn, like the absent Lonie Paxton, who will miss Saturday’s game because of a personal situation, is one of the most reliable long snappers of the modern NFL era. Both stand as proof that if you can master this peculiar speciality, you can have a career whose duration is the envy of the players at most other positions. But Binn hasn’t snapped a football in a consequential game since the divisional round of the 2009 playoffs. He was released by the San Diego Chargers, the only team he’d known, on Aug. 30, 2011 and didn’t latch onto another roster in the last two years.

The parallels between Binn and long-time NFL snapper Trey Junkin are striking. Nine years ago, Junkin, a veteran of 19 NFL seasons, joined the New York Giants in time for their wild-card playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers — and misfired on a snap for a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds of regulation, forcing a madcap sequence that ended in an incomplete pass. Junkin never played again, and a nearly flawless career became defined for many observers by one snap.

One hopes that same fate doesn’t befall Binn, who is the Chargers’ all-time leader in games played but now receives one bonus game — and chance to help a long-time rival.

4. THE COLD.

How frigid will the temperature be? If it’s below 20 degrees at kickoff, then the Broncos will be attempting to do something they haven’t accomplished since 1978: to win with a kickoff temperature below 20 degrees.

It’s cold enough to where the Patriots will give away hand warmers to the first 20,000 fans — a nice enough gesture, but not for the fans who linger in the parking lots over their quickly chilling clam chowder and their bottles of Samuel Adams which will have no need for artificial refrigeration in the frosty air.

The Patriots have a history of success at home in chilly weather. Two of their most memorable all-time wins were in snow, which is not expected Saturday, and they defeated the Tennessee Titans in a January 2004 playoff game in which the kickoff temperature was four degrees.

5. THE MINDSET.

Which one of these teams has won a playoff game in the last four seasons? Hint: it’s not New England.

That’s a slightly misleading statistic, of course, since the Patriots haven’t played their postseason opener this year, but it illustrates a larger point: for all of their regular-season success in recent years, with the last four seasons continuing a streak of winning seasons that is now at 11 and years with at least 10 wins that is now at nine, the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship, which pushed them to 18-0 before a Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants.

The pressure heaped upon the Patriots to return to their Super Bowl form is immense here in New England. The fact that their last two seasons have ended in home playoff defeats to the Ravens and Jets doesn’t help matters, and if the Broncos linger long enough to make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, the home crowd will not only be frigid, but fretful.

There’s not the same burden of expectation upon the Broncos. While they will be upset in the moment if they lose Saturday, it won’t take them long before they step away and recognize what a smashing success the 2011 campaign was. Five years of decline were reversed. The win total was doubled. Young players stepped forward all around the roster. Stars were born. An organization’s dignity was restored — as was a region’s pride in it.

Thus, the Broncos can play loose and with verve … just like they did last week. It worked well enough then. If they avoid mistakes, why can’t it work once more?

Also, let’s not forget — Broncos coach John Fox is 4-1 in road playoff games. He’s taken teams into venues like Soldier Field, Giants Stadium and Lincoln Financial Field and emerged victorious.

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About Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason has covered the NFL since 1999, when he worked as an editor on NFL.com when the site was managed by ESPN.com. He worked six seasons (2002-07) covering the Broncos on their official website and two (2008-09) on the Panthers' site. He began MaxDenver.com in 2010 and now contributes to CBSSports.com, The Sporting News and The New York Times.

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