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Patriots-Broncos matchup of the day: Thursday

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By Kevin Fishbain

Here's a key matchup to watch in the divisional-round game between the Patriots and Broncos:

Patriots defense vs. Broncos QB Tim Tebow

Tebow has quieted the doubters with his play all season long, and he had early success against the Patriots in Week 15, especially running the football. Tebow had 12 carries for 93 yards (7.8-yard average) with two touchdowns in the loss to New England.

He completed only 50 percent of his passes in that game — which is actually higher than his season average — for 194 yards with zero TDs and zero interceptions. However, just three weeks later, in the wild-card win over the Steelers, he threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns against a formidable, though banged-up, Pittsburgh defense.

Part of the Patriots' struggles in defending against Tebow's legs came in tackling and maintaining gap integrity. OLB Rob Ninkovich missed a tackle on a Tebow TD run and the team struggled setting the edge in the first quarter.

Starting in the second quarter, the defense rattled Tebow, forcing two fumbles. When Tom Brady got the offense moving, allowing New England to build a lead, Tebow couldn't rally Denver back through the air, even against the Patriots' weak passing defense.

Tebow had two very accurate throws that went for touchdowns against Pittsburgh last week. The Steelers often stuffed the box, opening up the middle of the field for Tebow to make throws. Tebow's athleticism allows him to extend the play, giving his receivers time to get open.

The Patriots will have a couple options in terms of defending against Tebow's arm. They can stuff the box, pressure him and rely on close coverage by the cornerbacks. They also could use some disguises, rush three or four and keep more defenders in coverage, forcing Tebow to make multiple reads.

Both can work if executed well. Mark Anderson provided a spark in getting pressure on Tebow from the edge (the Patriots sacked Tebow four times in Week 15 despite losing leading sacker Andre Carter to a season-ending quad injury late in the first quarter). Considering personnel issues in the secondary, the Pats might want to keep more players in coverage. Bill Belichick is known for using disguised looks at the line, and that could rattle Tebow. Regardless of the strategy, the Week 15 performance proved that pressuring Tebow — as long as he is contained — can be successful for a defense.

Against the run, the Patriots' outside 'backers and defensive ends need to set the edge. Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Spikes provide a strong middle of the defense, and Tebow should be funneled in that direction.

For every big throw Tebow has made, he has made a bad throw — the Bills picked him off three times, including two pick-sixes, in Week 16. But his best plays generally have come in the clutch when playing from behind, a place the Broncos likely will find themselves on Saturday.

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