FOXBORO -- Without Matt Prater, there is no Tebowmania.
Lost in hubbub over the Broncos' quarterback is the fact that Denver's kicker has been the most clutch in the NFL this season. Prater has kicked three game-winning field goals in the Broncos' last three contests. Last week he kicked a 59-yarder to send his team to overtime against the Bears. Then he knocked down a 51-yard bomb in overtime to win, further contributing to Tebow's legend, hardly his own.
Make no mistake, Tebow, dubbed "The Mile High Messiah," has done plenty to contribute to his team's seven wins in its last eight games -- both with his play on the field, and it appears, his attitude. But if not for Prater, who has four game-winners in all this season, Tebow's Tebowing may have gone unanswered.
None of this is lost on Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who knows just how important a good kicker can be to his team's success. In the NFL Network documentary, A Football LifeBelichick called Adam Vinatieri the best player on the Patriots when they won Super Bowl XXXVI.
"He's got a leg, but he's also an accurate kicker," Belichick said. "He's hit a lot of long ones. Special teams coach Scott O'Brien coached him out there, so we know him. He knows him. Absolutely it extends your defense in those field goal situations.
"To protect against the field goal, you have to extend out a little bit further... Especially at the end of the game because then they'll take a shot at anything."
And especially at Invesco Field, where the mile-high air may contribute to the completion of longer field goals. Two of Prater's three field goals of 50 yards or longer this season have come in Denver. In his career, he's 12-of-16 from beyond 50 yards.
Prater's leg also comes into play on kickoffs. He has recorded 40 touchbacks this season, but Belichick has paid close attention to Prater's talent for onside kicks. The Broncos beat the Dolphins in Week 7 after recovering a Prater onside kick. They nearly recovered another last week against the Bears. It was essentially a jump ball, placed perfectly by Prater, but Chicago recovered.
"He does a great job of spiking it, putting it up there, giving them a chance to get under it," Belichick said. "He has great touch on those kicks."
If the Broncos find themselves in yet another situation when a Prater onside kick may give them a chance to win the game, the Patriots will be ready for it. Belichick said it's a situation they prepare for every week.
"It's just another thing to prepare for," Belichick said. "It's another thing you've gotta work on. It's a critical play if it comes up. It doesn't come up every week. You dont know when it's going to come up. But when it does, you gotta cover it."
When the Pats say (again and again) that the Broncos are not a one-man team, they mean it. It's not all about Tebow, or the Broncos' running backs, or their defense.
It's also partly about a kicker. And while the rest of the country may be wrapped up Tebow's story, it's clear, Prater is not a forgotten man in Foxboro.