Tonight's game between the two-time defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots (11-6) and the former two-time defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos (13-3) could be one of the most underhyped yet over-dissected games in history.
Only two years separate the Broncos back-to-back titles and the Patriots four-year run. So much for parity.
I've heard angles, and angles of angles, and angles of angled angles, starting with analyzing the teams' meeting during Week 6 like I did yesterday to comparing the coaches to player-by-player matchup analysis to history and trending lessons, everything except astrology. If I had the time, I'd do the same. I'd bring you every fine detail to paint as clear a picture of what I think will happen in what may be the NFL's biggest game of 2005-2006.
But I don't have that kind of time, and, to be quite honest, like Bill Belichick would say, "I'll tell you what you can do with it," and as Chris Berman would say, "That's why they play the games."
This is the kind of game that either team could blow out the other, either could clip the other, the teams could combine for 17 points or 75 points. This is the first playoff game at the new Mile High (I still refuse to use that "other" name), so we can't attribute any specific history to it, and previously, it would have been a big factor.
This entire game will hinge on the play of the New England defensive front seven, and it's not going to be easy against one of the historically best offensive lines in the league.
Since the return of Richard Seymour and the continuing improvement of Tedy Bruschi (when he's healthy) and the breakout of Mike Vrabel, this defense has become more and more impenetrable, limiting most teams to less than 100 yards rushing, most even to less than 50.
That, in turn, allows the defense to put more pressure on the quarterback, which, in turn, takes some pressure off the defensive secondary. That keeps opponents out of the end zone and off the scoreboard. It also keeps them from sustaining drives and winning the field position battle.
Here comes the domino effect. If the opponent isn't scoring, it's less pressure on the offense to score on every series. With that lowered pressure, the offense can continue rushing the ball, looking for openings, wearing down the opponent's defensive front, giving time to the quarterback and allowing someone with great skill and precision to hit seven or eight or nine different receivers.
That helps the offense move methodically downfield, chewing up game time, wearing down the defense, and, hopefully, putting points on the board, more specifically -- finding the end zone.
A lot of this scenario depends on the health of Bruschi. If he's 100 percent, that significantly increases New England's chances of success. If he's not, it will be degrees of defensive degradation. Unless, of course, Willie McGinest has at least one more incomprehensible performance left in him.
Vince Wilfork will play a monumentally key role in this game. That's not a prediction that he'll make great plays. That just means a lot rests on his performance. As a matter of fact, I think that Ty Warren and Seymour will make the key plays; Warren, because Wilfork will command the middle of the field, and Seymour, because he's Richard Seymour.
Of course, Denver's defense is pretty good, despite many pundits' preseason predictions that the Cleveland Castaways (three of the four defensive linemen) would amount to little, if anything. New England's offensive line probably isn't as good as Denver's and that might be a problem, except that the Patriots have Tom Brady.
KEY NO. 2: PROTECT BRADY
The key will be to protect Brady's blind side, which New England has done a poor job of all season. Most of the Sacks Brady has taken, and virtually all of his fumbles, have come from blind-side hits. Also, New England better hope Logan Mankins has matured enough not to get suckered into something stupid like Week 6 when he got tossed from the game.
New England's running game remains a nagging liability. Corey Dillon remains listed as probable with his own calf injury and an old-man label applied by the media. Fullback Patrick Pass has been downgraded to out, and fullback Heath Evans is probable with a sore shoulder. Only Kevin Faulk is currently injury free in the Pats backfield, but fortunately, he has played huge roles in some of New England's biggest games ever.
If the Patriots get down to the goal line, look for Vrabel, Tom Ashworth, and at least one tight end (Christian Fauria or Ben Watson) to run routes. Brady will find the open man, even if it's not one of those three guys. If they get there again, look for the same formation, but this time with either Dillon or maybe even Brady attempting to drive through the line.
SECONDARY OF PRIMARY IMPORTANCE
The other big matchup most of us realize is the Broncos stable of wide receiver against New England's simply overmatched defensive second. Fortunately, there has been great improvement since Week 6.
There's almost no doubt Jake Plummer will go after Asante Samuel with Rod Smith. Ashley Lelie is a very dangerous second target, a guy I've hyped since his entry into the league. Deep on Denver's depth chart is David Terrell, who spent the preseason with New England. He shouldn't be a factor, but don't be surprised if you hear his name.
There's some good news. Both of Plummer's primary tight ends are a little banged up. Stephen Alexander, one of the best in the game, has a mild toe injury, which may slow him down a step. Jeb Putzier has a bad shoulder and may be susceptible to a fumble, especially if Samuel, Eugene Wilson or Ellis Hobbs lays a Rodney Harrison-like lick on him, like Samuel did in Week 6. But remember, while Harrison seems to have had an impact teaching these guys while he's been sidelined, none of them are him.
The secondary's work is cut out, and may be even tougher with Plummer's mobility. New England's best chance might be to play Denver the way they played St. Louis a few years ago. Unfortunately, none of those defensive backs are with the Patriots, so Samuel, Wilson, Hobbs and Artrell Hawkins better have studied lots of film.
Yes, the Patriots have significantly improved since Week 6. But they were battered badly before Denver let them back in. The Broncos certainly haven't been sitting around stagnant since then either. They have improved and learned to play together even better.
Unlike New England, Denver's backfield is completely healthy. Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson and company are at full strength. As I said earlier, Wilfork will bear the brunt of this attack, and his ability to stand his ground may be the proverbial finger in the dike. (That's a big finger, mind you.)
BRAINS VS. BRAWN
Belichick is 14-0 when facing a team a second time in a season, which means Brady probably has a similar record. I'm sure Mike Shanahan won't be without surprises, but Belichick should have a good grip on what's coming. On the other hand, outside of game film, it's going to be a little tougher for Denver to see what's coming, because (a) they didn't see anything in Week 6, and (b) you never really see the same thing twice from New England. What might be wisest for Shanahan is to prepare exactly for nothing of what they have seen so far. (Hey, it sounded good before I wrote it.)
Of course, Denver is 8-0 in the postseason against teams they have beaten during the regular season. You can throw stats at this game six ways from Sunday, and half of them are going to fail.
Yes, if the Pats can score early and build a lead, that would be best. That would be best for any team. Yes, that would be ideal. That's not a gameplan.
ULTIMATE KEY: TURNOVERS
For all practical matters, the last important factor in this one is going to be turnovers, which all those other parts will affect. Everyone needs to protect the ball as if his life depends on it. The player who at the wrong second tries to do too much will be your goat. I don't expect a lot of turnover. One could be the difference. One anything could be the difference.
WEATHER NOT A FACTOR
One other factor that cannot be discounted is the weather. The National Weather Service says it will be 48 degrees at kickoff. An 8 mph southwesterly wind will make it feel like 44 degrees. Skies will be partly cloudy with no chance of precipitation. I have to tell you, the Old Farmer's Almanac really blew it this year. That's probably the best news Denver could have received.
NO MORE RESPECT STORIES ... PLEASE
I've heard a lot of extreme confidence from Patriots fans on the radio, on TV, on the street. This is exactly the kind of attitude Belichick tries to get his players to avoid. It's that whole "respect" thing. Don't take the Broncos lightly. Don't take Jake Plummer lightly. If we can say Week 6 didn't matter, we're a different team, it's ancient history, you can say the same of Plummer's past playoff futility.
With everything that could happen in this game, maybe Troy Brown will return an interception for a game-winning touchdown.
I'm still trying to find out who's officiating tonight. I'll update if I hear anything. So far, it appears the crews are letting the boys play. That's generally a good thing, but Denver's offensive line can be pretty dicey with all their cut blocking. We'll have to keep an eye on it.
Prediction: Patriots, 31-30.
Tonight's game will be broadcast locally on CBS, Channel 4. Jim Nantz is the play-by-play announcer and Phil Simms provides biased commentary. Bonnie Bernstein will make ridiculous statements and obtain no useful information from the coaches at halftime. The game can be heard on CBS Radio. Bob Papa handles the live action with Rick Walker coloring and analyzing, sort of. Jeff Bostic is the sideline reporter. As usual, you can catch a better audio description of the game on WBCN 104.1 FM with Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti.