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.
There's one where he makes a one-handed catch and celebrates with his arms outstretched as he glides into the end zone. There's another where he leaves his feet to go up and over safety Devin McCourty to come down with a pass.
Judging by some of the pictures that have surfaced on Patriots.com of Rob Gronkowski participating in an OTA practice earlier this week, the All-Pro tight end seems to be feeling pretty good.
Gronkowski is returning to action after undergoing season-ending back surgery last year so there was some question as to just how prepared he'd be to participate in practices this spring and summer.
Again, judging by the photos, the answer is he's ready to ready to run routes on air and make contested catches against defenders.
Reporters will have an opportunity to watch the team practice on Thursday, the first workout open to members of the media, which will allow us to judge Gronkowski's mobility and his level of participation.
Another takeaway from the photos on the team website is that Gronkowski was not required to wear a non-contact jersey during the session. Contact is not allowed during this phase of the offseason training program, but players returning from injury (and quarterbacks) will still wear red jerseys to inform their teammates they're not to be touched. For instance, Jonathan Freeny, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve about a month into last season, donned a red non-contact jersey in one image.
Tom E. Curran and our Boston Sports Tonight crew debate whether the New England Patriots could have restructured Malcolm Butler's contract like they did Rob Gronkowski's.