If the AFC Championship isn't played at Gillette Stadium in two Sundays, the New England Patriots have no excuses. If they can't beat the Denver Broncos - a team that finished the regular season 8-8 and lost to New England 41-23 in Week 15 - then the Patriots deserve every ounce of criticism and every accusation of choking they will get. Everything has broken perfectly for the Patriots in the last month. As every other AFC team with a shot at the No. 1 overall seed flopped, the Patriots kept winning. And they emerged with home field advantage and the bye. And when the Steelers - perhaps the most daunting adversary in the AFC - had injuries pile up. New England benefited. When the Patriots should have been playing the Sunday Night Football game at Denver in Week 15, they got out of it. And now the Broncos are the only team that has to play on a short week coming into the Divisional Playoff round. The Steelers team the Broncos beat on Sunday was a shell of the 12-4 team that was at its best until the first week of December when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain. In addition to a hobbling Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh was without free safety Ryan Clark and running backs Mewelde Moore and Rashad Mendenhall, defensive end Brett Keisel, andnose tackle Casey Hampton. Playing at altitude without the quarterback of their secondary (Clark), the Steelers got lit up by Tebow throwing over the top of them. You can look at the Patriots and ask why they wouldn't get lit up by the Broncos offense as Pittsburgh did.It's allowed. Butthe Patriots offense is a smidge more potent than the Steelers. Denver never had to get into a pass-first mode against Pittsburgh. The Patriots should be able to put them there. How will newly-re-signed offensive assistant Josh McDaniels (the Patriots made his hiring official in a statement Sunday night) assist in preparing for Tebow? -- It was McDaniels that drafted Tebow in Denver two years ago. Honestly, it shouldn't make much difference going into this game. Everything the Patriots need to know about Tebow has been revealed in his 12 starts this season. He's inaccurate short, dangerous medium-to-deep, runs well with the ball, exposes the ball when he's in the pocket and on the move and cannot throw when moving to his right. He generally doesn't throw many picks. He plays to the last instant of the game, he has incredible self-confidence and charisma and his teammates believe in him. The Patriots are facing a good Denver defense but not one that they had a ton of trouble with when they met in December. In that game, the Patriots scored on four of their first five drives and six of their first nine. For a team that's struggled mightily to start games well, the Denver game was an exception. On the flip side, the Broncos won't come into New England thinking they can't compete with the 13-3 Patriots. Their wounds were self-inflicted in their loss to the Patriots. Two fumbles and a muffed punt led to 13 of the Patriots 20 second-quarter points when the game was blown open. Still, the Broncos are not on the same level as the Patriots. Not by any stretch. Denver is the beneficiary of a Steelers team that fell on hard times. To think that Tebow - inspiring, charismatic and wrongly discounted as he is - will put together two excellent games in the playoffs against elite teams is too much to ask. The Patriots should have no problem next Sunday with the Denver Broncos. The Broncos cannot beat the Patriots. The Patriots need only to avoid beating themselves.
When will Bill Belichick retire? The Patriots coach is 64 years old, and he's been on record saying that he won't be coaching into his 70s like former Bills head coach Marv Levy. But it sure seems like Belichick has plenty of energy to stay at the job for some time, and the results, you may have noticed, have been pretty good.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels joined WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show on Monday morning, and he was asked about how much longer his boss might work. Would McDaniels be surprised if Belichick coached into his 70s despite what he said on NFL Network's A Football Life documentary back in 2009?
"It wouldn't surprise me," McDaniels said. "I know Bill loves football. His drive and his passion for the game and to try to do everything we can to prepare our team to win each week, I haven't seen one change in it. It's a great privilege to coach for him. He certainly kind of sets the tone for us. I don't see any difference in that since when I first started here. I look forward to coaching for him for as long as he'll let me."
Some have speculated that McDaniels could be the next head coach of the Patriots whenever Belichick decides to hang up his whistle. The 40-year-old has been up for head coaching positions since he's returned for his second stint in New England, but he's still with the organization that gave him his first NFL job in 2001.
McDaniels, who left to be the head coach of the Broncos in 2009 and 2010, was asked if he values the offensive coordinator job with the Patriots more than a head coaching opportunity that might not be the perfect fit.
"I love where I'm at," McDaniels said. "I've said before I think we all have aspirations to grow and get better and improve and potentially move up and what have you. Who knows? Maybe that day happens, maybe it doesn't. But I know this: I'm really thankful to have the opprtunity that I have to coach the players we have here and to work underneath Bill and Robert [Kraft] and the Kraft family. It's a privilege here. I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world. Just thankful that I have an opportunity to come here and do it each week."
The two quarterbacks on the Patriots roster are both dealing with injuries at the moment, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels says he's not sure which will be starting against the Bills on Sunday.
"I don't know that," he told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show on Monday morning. "I haven't seen them in a few days. Hopefully all those guys are continuing to get better. We'll see them tomorrow. Hopefully they're all ready to go. That would be the goal. That would be the hope . . . But as of right now I don't know that."
Garoppolo's shoulder injury, suffered against the Dolphins in Week 2, was significant enough to keep him out of Thursday night's win over the Texans. In his place, rookie third-rounder Jacoby Brissett got the start, but he injured his thumb during the game. He played through the injury, which Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran has reported is "minor."
Asked if receiver Julian Edelman would be the next in line if both of those players were unavailable, McDaniels explained that the Patriots may have used a variety of looks had they been in that kind of emergency situation.
"We have to have somebody ready to go," McDaniels said. "Julian's certainly been in that position before. There's always a couple other things you can do. There's a lot of schemes that are available to people if that situation were to ever come up , , , It might not have been one thing. It might've been multiple different things that we try at that point. We had more than one guy that was ready to go if that situation came up."
Bills coach Rex Ryan said on Sunday that he didn't care who was playing behind center for the Patriots, even if it was coach Bill Belichick. The Bills would be coming after him.
"I have a lot of respect for Rex," McDaniels said. "What he says is usually the truth. They'll blitz. They'll bring a lot of packages each week to try to disrupt the quarterback, whichever team he's playing . . . He always keeps you on your toes, makes it difficult."