The Denver Broncos haven't been to the playoffs since 2006, so they're in no position and certainly no mood to judge the quality of the opponents they're dispatching with all this last-minute magic.
They're 7-1 since Tim Tebow took over and started engineering a series of outrageous second-half comebacks. Those opponents, though, have a combined record of 39-52.
With Tom Brady and the powerful New England Patriots (10-3) coming to town Sunday, the Broncos (8-5) see this as a chance to prove they're not just a curiosity but a contender.
“Yeah, well, we need to prove it to ourselves,” star cornerback Champ Bailey said. “We've played against some teams that were kind of struggling. We'd like to go put it together against a top-quality quarterback like Brady.”
It's not just Tebow who's facing what could be his toughest test since he started the final three games last season and then supplanted an ineffective Kyle Orton in October after a 1-4 start.
Denver's dominant defence, which has two hiccups — against the multifaceted Lions and Packers, faces another formidable challenge in the Patriots, led by Brady, who's thrown for 33 touchdown passes, 15 of them to big tight end Rob Gronkowski and nine to Wes Welker, who already has 100 catches.
“He's getting them all the ball,” said Broncos safety Brian Dawkins. “Nobody's really starving for catches.”
And so, the AFC East-leading Patriots are feasting on opponents, putting up an AFC-best 31 points a game.
That kind of firepower means the AFC West-leading Broncos' notoriously slow-starting offence will have to keep pace, and given New England's defensive shortcomings, this game could turn into a shootout.
Only twice have the Broncos piled up points since Tebow took over in October. They put up 38 at Oakland and 35 at Minnesota. But six times they've failed to even score 20 points with Tebow starting.
That's why so many see this game as the Broncos' best barometer yet.
The Patriots have the pedigree the Broncos used to have when they, too, were a perennial playoff team. But Denver hasn't punched its ticket to the post-season party since losing to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game following the 2005 season.
“Obviously New England has been a team that's been in the playoffs for the last decade or whatever. So they've got a lot of players who've been there,” Broncos pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil said. “They're the team that's always been in the playoffs. We want to establish ourselves as that team. This is a good challenge for us.”
The Broncos have long been Brady's bugaboo, beating him five times in six tries, including a 27-13 win on Jan. 14, 2006, when Bailey returned a game-changing interception 100 yards, helping hand Brady his first playoff loss and ending New England's 10-game post-season winning streak and a shot at an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl title.
“Considering how much they won the previous years, they were pretty much unbeatable,” Bailey said. “To get a play like that and to change the game, to get a win against a team like that, yes, it's a special moment.”
With the Patriots going in for the go-ahead score, Bailey stepped in front of Troy Brown in the end zone for the pick and sprinted down the sideline, only to get knocked out of bounds at the 1 by hustling tight end Ben Watson.
“Yeah. I thought my guy Nick Ferguson — we all remember him — I thought if he looked inside and blocked that guy coming across the field, then I would have scored,” Bailey cracked. “But we still ended up scoring on the next play.”
This game doesn't hold nearly as much significance, but in many ways it's the most intriguing matchup at Mile High in years.
The Patriots could clinch a playoff spot and inch closer to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which could prove the best salve for their defensive troubles.
The Broncos could take a lot of pressure off themselves over the final two weeks of the season, with games against Buffalo on the road and at home against Kansas City.
Bailey, the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback, will have his work cut out for him, covering either Welker in the slot or the Patriots' two big tight ends in Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
“What makes them so tough is their size,” Bailey said. “I can keep up with them with my feet, but it's just the pushing and the shoving and the ball placement. It's tougher when you have a quarterback like Tom Brady, because he puts the ball where nobody else can get it.”
Then, he might have to chase around Welker, the five-foot-nine dynamo who's putting up big numbers himself.
“It's like night and day, but they're all productive,” Bailey said. “We've got some tools that we're going to use and hopefully they work.”
Notes: Dawkins (neck) and CB Andre' Goodman (concussion) practiced Friday and are listed as questionable for the game. ... Tebow on the two 17-year-old boys in New York who were suspended for organizing “Tebowing” kneel-downs at their high school, where the superintendent said the tribute posed a safety hazard by blocking others from getting to class: “You have to respect the position of authority and people that God's put as authority over you, so that's part of it, and just finding the right place and the right time to do things is part of it, too. But I think it does show courage from the kids standing out and doing that, and some boldness.”
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