In the name of Tebow

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In the name of Tebow

Yesterday in DC, the Pats won their fifth straight game, yet there remains a healthy level of uneasiness around New England.

For the second week in a row, the Pats looked far-from-perfect against a God awful team. The offense was inconsistent. The secondary was porous. They failed to crush a very crushable opponent.

While there's no such thing as a bad win in the NFL, there are inspiring wins, and for the second straight week, the Pats weren't even close. As a result, less than a month before the playoffs, we're not sure where to set the bar. We still don't know if they're good enough.

That's beyond frustrating, not something to which we're accustomed. But then again, is it any surprise?

We knew what was in store when the Pats kicked off this last leg of the season.

In short: A lot of games against really bad teams.

In slightly longer: Very few opportunities for the Pats to prove themselves.

And that's exactly how it's played out. But through all the frustration, they've still a) won games and b) stayed relatively healthy. What else can you ask for? What were you really going to learn from them beating the Colts and Redskins?

(Devin McCourty was clearly favoring his shoulder down the stretch yesterday, and Jerod Mayo didn't look great coming off the field after the game-clinching interception, so that could change. But for now, I'll remain optimistic.)

So yeah, I'm not worried yet. I'm not booking hotel rooms in Indianapolis, but anything's still possible.

Through 13 games, the Patriots defense has allowed 30 points only once. Meanwhile, yesterday marked the 10th time the offense has scored 30. I know it's not that easy, or even close, but read that again. Things aren't that bad. While the last few weeks have been uneventful and uninspired, the Pats are still 10-3. They're still one of only three or four teams with a chance of winning the AFC. And let's be thankful for that.

But more than anything questionable segue alert let's be thankful for Tim Tebow.

Not for his inspiration, charity and unquestionable healing powers. Not for his ridiculous comebacks and mind-blowing post game interviews.

But for injecting life back into the Patriots season.

For most of this year, we looked at this Sunday's matchup with Denver in the same light as the other December cake walks. Indianapolis, Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo. Some were better than others, but there was no real distinction. At best, they were just different kinds of garbage.

But thanks to all that Tebow's accomplished these last few months, the Patriots now have an unexpected challenge. There's finally something to prove.

Certainly Denver's not perfect. There are many ways to question and discredit this amazing run. Regardless, they've won seven of eight. They have a strong defense, the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack and an unbelievable home field advantage. By beating the Broncos, the Pats can make statement that we never imagined would be there. Or they can lose, and go a long way to reinforcing some of our fears.

Either way, for the first time since Week 10 against the Jets, Patriots fans have something to look forward to.

Tebow Week begins . . . now.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

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Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test. 
 

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

FOXBORO -- Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett admitted last week that he has been dealing with a variety of physical ailments throughout the course of his first season with the Patriots. "I've been fighting through [expletive] the whole year," he said, "and I'm not gonna stop now."

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

Bennett suffered a knee injury against the Texans last week that limited him in practices leading up to the AFC title game, but he's also had to cope with ankle and shoulder issues for much of the season.

On Sunday, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted: "Patriots love Martellus Bennett's toughness. Example: He plays with a cracked bone [and] bone chips in his ankle. Surgery likely this spring."

Bennett initially showed up on the Patriots injury report with an ankle issue after having his leg twisted awkwardly during a win over the Browns in Week 5. It hampered him for much of the regular season, and he seemed to aggravate it further while being tackled during a Week 12 victory at Met Life Stadium over the Jets. The following week, a win against the Rams, Bennett admitted he had what was probably his worst game of the season.

Bennett has continually played as the top tight end on the Patriots roster since Rob Gronkowski landed on injured reserve. He played in 64 of a possible 69 offensive snaps against the Texans in the Divisional Round, and he has played at least 43 snaps each week since the Patriots' bye in Week 9. For the season, he has played in 78 percent of New England's offensive snaps.

Bennett is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He'll turn 30 years old in March.