Pats big chalk versus Broncos

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have formed one of the best coach-quarterback partnerships in NFL history, so it’s a bit surprising they’ve gone nearly four years since their last playoff win.

To end that drought Saturday night, they’ll have to put a stop to Tebowmania – again.

Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed New England as a 13 1/2-point home favorite, with the total set at 50.

After Tim Tebow helped Denver pull off a breathtaking upset in his postseason debut, the Broncos will be even bigger underdogs in this divisional-round showdown in Foxborough, where Josh McDaniels’ return to the New England staff adds further intrigue to a rematch of the Patriots’ rout in Denver four weeks ago.

The Broncos’ 29-23 overtime win over Pittsburgh on Sunday gave Tebow more playoff victories than the Patriots have in the last three seasons combined.

Belichick and Brady combined for a 14-2 postseason record and three Super Bowl wins before New England was denied a perfect season by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The team missed the playoffs the next year following Brady’s knee injury, then lost its playoff opener at home each of the next two seasons.

Just like they are now, the Patriots (13-3) were the AFC’s top seed last January when they were upset 28-21 by the New York Jets.

“I haven’t thought about anything about last year or last week,” Brady said.

“It’s a different team. It really is. … None of those games mean anything. How teams are going to attack us, we’ll see.”

The Steelers seemed to attack Tebow by guarding against the run and daring him to throw the ball deep, something the left-hander had struggled to do during a three-game losing streak that began Dec. 18 with a 41-23 home loss to New England.

After a six-game win streak, Tebow was 30 of 72 (41.1 percent) for 439 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions while losing the final three regular-season games. Denver (9-8), though, backed into the AFC West title based on other results.

John Elway urged Tebow to “pull the trigger” Sunday, and the controversial quarterback obliged.

He stunned Pittsburgh with four passes of at least 30 yards as the Broncos scored 20 straight points in the second quarter, then landed the ultimate blow with an 80-yard touchdown strike to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.

“We were just waiting for him to come out and play the way we knew he could and show everybody,” receiver Eddie Royal said.

Both Tebow and Thomas, who had 204 yards receiving Sunday, were drafted in the first round in 2010 by McDaniels, the Broncos’ head coach at the time. McDaniels’ tenure in Denver got off to a rousing start with six straight wins to begin the 2009 season, but he was fired after the team lost 17 of the next 22.

After serving as offensive coordinator for St. Louis this season, McDaniels was rehired this week by New England, where he worked from 2001-08. He’ll become offensive coordinator again next season after Bill O’Brien’s departure for Penn State, but McDaniels rejoined the staff immediately.

“He’s ready to help us in any way that he can. I’m sure that he’ll be an asset to our coaching staff and our team,” Belichick said. “I’m not sure exactly how that will pan out.”

The move didn’t violate any rules, but it has prompted questions about the fairness of a coach – especially one familiar with a certain opponent – changing teams in the midst of the playoffs.

“I’ll let you guys answer that one,” said Denver defensive end Robert Ayers, another first-round pick McDaniels helped to make. “I’m pretty sure I’m thinking the same thing you guys are thinking. I’m just not going to say it.”

Without McDaniels, New England racked up 451 yards in Denver last month. Brady threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in that game, rushing for a third score.

The Patriots recovered three Broncos fumbles and didn’t turn the ball over. However, their defense was vulnerable early as the team fell behind 16-7, allowing 167 rushing yards in the first quarter.

The struggles of the 31st-ranked unit have prompted doubts about whether the Patriots can seriously contend for a title. New England won its final eight games, but its last three opponents took sizable early leads – Miami 17-0 and Buffalo 21-0 – before the offense rallied.

“I think any champion (wins) with a good defense, that’s how you slice it,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “If you can’t stop anyone, you can’t win. I don’t care how many points you put up. At the end of the day, you have to stop someone.”

The Patriots got safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes back in Week 17 after extended injury absences. Spikes, a friend of Tebow’s while the two were teammates at Florida, figures to help against Denver’s top-ranked rushing attack.

The Broncos look like the more banged-up team now. Wide receiver Eric Decker isn’t expected to play after suffering a sprained knee last weekend, and safety Brian Dawkins may remain out with a neck problem. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil (right ankle) also missed practice time this week.

Defensively, Denver managed to contain Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski last month, but Aaron Hernandez – another former Tebow teammate with the Gators – stepped up with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.

“I feel like it was a good learning experience,” Tebow said. “I think it’s a privilege for us to play again.

“It’s playing one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, one of the best coaches of all-time and playing in a big game. It’s very exciting.”

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