NFL Playoff Preview: Broncos vs. Steelers
By Howard Ulman
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For his latest trick, Tim Tebow is making three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady disappear from the headlines.
Now, with Tebowmania in full force, the Denver Broncos hope to make the New England Patriots vanish from the playoffs when they meet tonight.
Photos of the devout, much doubted Denver sensation kneeling on the turf in prayer are a weekly occurrence. There are plenty of shots of him with arms thrust in the air after a scoring play.
But where are those pictures of Brady posing with supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen or with the Patriots title trophies?
That’s what happens when Tebow leads the Broncos to four overtime wins in one season, capped by last Sunday’s wild-card victory over Pittsburgh. For Brady, coming off one of the best of his 12 seasons, greatness is expected and not often celebrated.
“I’m never surprised at what gets talked about anymore,” Patriots left tackle Matt Light said with a smile. “I think I saw a seven-minute (video) piece on a girl that ate M&Ms while doing a handstand. That was interesting. I mean, I got into it for a while.
“I think it’s just any time there’s anything new — he’s obviously new (and) he’s done some incredible things this season. I think the hype is justified.”
If Tebow can stun the odds makers who have made the Broncos 13 1-2-point underdogs, the attention will grow heading into the AFC championship game. Forecasters are predicting the coldest day of the winter with temperatures in the single digits Saturday night.
Tebow, who played four seasons at Florida, hasn’t been in many games below 20 degrees.
“I’d say probably a handful,” he said, “not as many as Mr. Brady has, probably.”
The Patriots, winners of eight straight games but losers of their last three in the playoffs — the last two at home — beat the Broncos on Dec. 18 in Denver, 41-23.
New England (13-3) gave up 167 yards rushing in the first quarter and trailed 16-7 early in the second. But three Denver turnovers in that quarter were costly. Defensively, the Broncos controlled receiving stars Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, but were hurt by the Patriots’ other tight end, Aaron Hernandez.
The Patriots gave up the second-most yards in the league this season, but, with Brady, they scored the third most. So pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil must get to him early and defensive backs must cover as long as necessary.
Tebow won’t have leading receiver Eric Decker, who hurt his left knee against Pittsburgh. But Willis McGahee ran for 1,199 yards and Tebow added 660 this season on the NFL’s top rushing team.
“We can learn a little bit from our last game against them, but this is a whole new deal,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They’re a tough team to prepare for. They give you a lot of looks on both sides of the ball.”
Tebow brought the Broncos (9-8) back from a 1-4 start all the way to the playoffs despite completing 46.5 percent of his passes with a flawed motion and losing the last three regular-season games.
But the hype soared after last Sunday’s victory.
On the very first play of overtime, Pittsburgh had no deep safety. All Demaryius Thomas had to do was catch Tebow’s 18-yard pass over the middle and run the rest of the way for an 80-yard touchdown and a 29-23 win.
That cranked up the Tebowmania volume on postgame shows but not among his teammates.
“For the most part, it’s not like it’s something that you ask for,” Tebow said. “You care about going out there and trying to get better every day and trying to be a great teammate.”
And his teammates don’t focus on the hype.
“It’s nowhere in the locker room,” safety Quinton Carter said. “Everybody else outside of here can have fun with that. We’re here to work. We’re here to win.”