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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: The Enigmatic Tim Tebow

I like Tim Tebow.

There is no "but." I'm completely fascinated by him. When there are specials on TV about him, I watch. If there's a link to an article on some webpage I'm reading for a Tebow story, I'll most likely click it.

The word that is most commonly associated with Tebow is "polarizing." Wherever you turn, someone is arguing about something relating to the second year Denver Bronco. For some reason, at least 60% of the time that argument relates to his religion.

Why is religion in sports such a divisive topic? I've often brought up the fact that I listen to sports radio, and man was it buzzing this week with people wanting to get their two cents in about Tebow, especially as it relates to faith.

I'm just excited to watch a really intriguing football game between two teams in the hunt and under the public's microscope for their respective shortcomings.

At this point in the year, I feel like most Patriots news is constantly stressing the same things week in and week out- bad secondary, good offense but forcing to Gronkowski, and the pass rushing has improved. This year seems a lot like last, as I wrote last Thursday. But one thing is a lot different from last year: Tom Brady.

Let's be honest: Brady looks to be operating at about 85% of what he was last year. Not only is he not playing like the anti-turnover machine he was in 2010, but he's also getting antsy- constantly berating his receivers, often looking like a disciplinarian rather than a quarterback. He expects a lot of his weapons, and they produce for him.

It's not unheard of that a superstar quarterback play the game with an amplified chip on their shoulder, but I feel that this year Patriots' fans are getting treated to a bigger helping of Brady's friendly fire. It would be one thing if he was making all the throws, but he's not. He's forcing throws, especially to the "Gronk." He's had multiple interception games in two of New England's three losses- 4 against Buffalo, and 2 against the Giants. In the game against Pittsburgh he was held to 198 passing yards- a Tim Tebow-esque number?

Brady had looked much better in the four games before the Redskins, where he was terribly off for the first half and better in the second until his unforgivable interception in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.

Bill O'Brien lit into him, and frankly I'm surprised by that turn of events. It's a strange thing to see a coach rip into Tom Terrific- the epitome of the Patriot Way and a beacon of professionalism. It shows the fever pitch that the 2011 season has become for New England.

Richard Hill has touched on this a lot both indirectly and directly this week, but the weakest area of the Patriots' defense right now is the safety position. The talk of last season was definitely the pass rush, and that question has seemed to have been answered. Or has it? Do the math- the Patriots are on target to have one half less of a sack than last season.

The linebacker play this season has been steady despite the injuries, as Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo are playing at a high level and the Patriots have had a bevy of other good fill-ins like Jeff Tarpinian and Tracy White. The defensive line definitely seems to have improved this season- even if the quantity of the sacks haven't seemed to increase, it does feel like the quality has. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson have made a huge difference, and Anderson definitely looked like he could make an easy tradition to a 3-4 outside linebacker if the gameplan called for it. The run defense looked good at times against Washington, especially on the goal line. The beefy front is built for those packages.

If Belichick does decide to go back to a 3-4 look, and if Brandon Spikes returns, I expect the defense to look fierce against the run. Mayo is evolving into more of a playmaker, and Spikes was showing signs of a stout presence before his injury. With a healthy Fletcher to substitute, and players like Anderson, Moore, and the invisible Shaun Ellis to play elephant in a 3-4 look or an end in a 3rd down situation, New England is looking good in the first two levels of the defense. Andre Carter has proved that he can double-gap if necessary, Kyle Love is still an unheralded asset at defensive tackle, second year tackle Brandon Deaderick has seemingly replaced Shaun Ellis as a starter, and Vince Wilfork is having his best year since joining the Patriots. Heck, he might even tell you it's his best year ever.

The safety play is what's diminishing the quality of the Patriots defense this year, but it's not due to who was cut in the off season. Belichick was right to cut ties with Meriweather especially and Sanders to a lesser extent, and allow Patrick Chung to lead the secondary. The only problem was Chung's injury. James Ihedigbo has admirably filled in, but players like Ross Ventrone, Sergio Brown, and Matt Slater look like they won't cut it in the playoffs. I'm not sure why Sterling Moore was cut, because he seemed to be making an impact, but we television viewers unfortunately don't see the whole picture including safety play on TV. I'm sure there was a good reason. The whole group has been guilty of taking bad angles and giving bad support to the cornerbacks, making all coverage look worse.

It's getting to the point where I worry if Chung will be placed on injured reserve, at which point New England will have an unreliable safety group, to put it mildly.

Ultimately, the safety group will make or break the Patriots this week. The Broncos defense has been playing tough, but the last time they faced an offense even close to as explosive as New England they gave up 45 to the Lions. New England will put up points, and there's no way this group gives up another rushing performance like last week. This week comes down to play-action defense, and as Rich pointed out, that's the exact area where the Patriots' safeties are the weakest. They are guilty of freezing or biting on the play-fake, and then taking a poor recovery angle to help out the corner. Both of these are signs of defensive backs with limited time on the field. Hopefully, Nate Jones' experience will help him shake off the rust easily in case Chung doesn't come back- I think that the Patriots can survive with McCourty and Arrington starting with Ihedigbo and Jones behind them.

Safety help in the playaction is so important this week because of the burners that the Denver offense has on the outside- Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. These guys can be shut down with exemplary coverage, but both are capable of multiple circus receptions in any given game, or breaking free down the sideline and catching a deep ball. If any of the Patriots' safeties freeze during playaction, or bite on the run-fake, Tim Tebow will be able to get the ball into his playmakers hands, or at least be granted a one-on-one situation. The Patriots have to tread a fine line between aggression and good coverage to keep Tebow from having a big game.