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Obstacle course

In Broncos, Titans or Ravens, Patriots' first foe could be tough to overcome

By 4 p.m. yesterday, Bill Belichick knew whom he had to prepare his team to play in two weeks. Well, sort of. When the Cincinnati Bengals fell into their old ways and thus fell to the Cleveland Browns by suddenly looking like the Bungles of old, the Baltimore Ravens won the AFC North title without having to fire a shot last night. Since everything else already had been settled, Belichick and his staff immediately could go to work preparing for the Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and Denver Broncos.


Although the Broncos appear to be one of the most dangerous AFC opponents in the playoff field, it would be New England's fate to face them first in a rematch of New England's 4-point victory earlier this year if Denver can return to Indianapolis for the second time in three weeks and come away with a victory on wild-card weekend. The chances of that happening might be more likely than you think because the Broncos have been playing solidly ever since the Patriots beat them in November, winning five of their next six to clinch a wild-card spot before losing a meaningless game to the Packers without much of a fight yesterday.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan not only rested running back Clinton Portis for the second straight game to strengthen his battered ankle but also sat down wide receiver Rod Smith, tight end Shannon Sharpe, and quarterback Jake Plummer, who was healthy enough to go but not someone Shanahan wanted to put at risk after seeing his team struggle to a 1-4 record in games in which Plummer did not appear.

With Plummer in the lineup, Denver is a formidable opponent with a solid-though-unspectacular defense and an offense that can run you over and control the tempo with Portis (or apparently anyone they put in for him) while hurting you with the passing and improvisational skills of Plummer.

When Denver and New England first met neither team was at full strength, with nose tackle Ted Washington and defensive end Richard Seymour both out of the Patriots' starting lineup. The Broncos were led by a quarterback, Danny Kanell, who had been coaching his former high school team just two weeks earlier. Despite the absence of Plummer, the Broncos were suprisingly competitive that night in Mile High Stadium, losing, 30-26, when Tom Brady threw a winning touchdown pass to David Givens with 30 seconds left after Belichick called for an intentional safety on a long snap off the crossbar, giving his team better field position and possibly more time to score the winning touchdown.

For that to happen, the undermanned defense had to come through, and it did, driving Denver's offense off the field in 34 seconds to get the ball back to Brady with 2:15 to play. He didn't need that long to move the Patriots 58 yards for the win in a situation when the Broncos could have carried the day had Portis been able to rush for a couple of first downs.

Even with their depleted front, the Patriots refused to allow it and that speaks well for their chances in a rematch, even with the added presence of Plummer. Certainly Plummer increases the problems because he provides Portis (who rushed for 111 yards against New England) with more running room because any defense has to respect Plummer's arm and playmaking ability on the run. But the larger question is whether the Broncos' defense can improve on a performance in which it allowed 419 yards, including 350 passing yards and three touchdowns to Brady.

This is a moot point if Denver can't return to Indianapolis and repeat what it did two weeks ago, when its defense tore Peyton Manning to shreds with a blitzing, gambling look while controlling the game with a Portis-less running attack that piled up 227 yards and dominated the clock.

"We'll be ready to play that game," Sharpe said yesterday. "They know us and we know them, but we'll both have some new things for each other. We've got a hot running back, a quarterback who is playing really well, and a defense that's holding teams to 20 minutes of possession a game. Any time you have that, you've got to feel good [about your chances]."

The Broncos were so effective running the ball in Indianapolis without Portis that their offense was on the field for nearly 45 minutes, meaning that whatever Manning was going to accomplish had to be done in a hurry. That turned out not to be much, but can Denver stop an offense with as many weapons as the Colts possess twice in three weeks in Indianapolis? The Patriots might be wise to hope that's the case.

If the 12-4 Colts hold off the Broncos, they would go to Kansas City the following weekend while the winner of the Baltimore-Tennessee matchup would come to Foxborough by virtue of being the lowest-seeded team remaining. When one considers that the Patriots will face either the Broncos or the Ravens-Titans winner, one has to wonder if being the top seed is really all it's cracked up to be. Certainly the advantage of home field cannot be minimized, but as far as which team you draw, "settling" for the Titans or Broncos is certainly no prize.

Even Baltimore will be difficult for anyone because of the power running of Jamal Lewis and a nasty defense led by one of the best linebackers in NFL history, Ray Lewis. But the Titans are as well-balanced and playoff-hardened as any team in the AFC and seem well-equipped to move on to the second round.

Tennessee crushed the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers yesterday even with quarterback Steve McNair held out of the lineup to rest his aching legs. They won with a defense that produced four interceptions, two sacks, and ceaseless pressure on Tampa's offense. And they passed the Bucs' defense into submission even with Air McNair grounded.

Tennessee dusted off the passing arm of Neil O'Donnell, a 14-year veteran who already had been cut twice this season by the Titans and was throwing snowballs in his backyard rather than footballs just 10 days ago when the Titans called him back to work. He delivered two touchdown passes to the dangerous Derrick Mason. That was a strong all-around effort, and a warning to future opponents of what the Titans are capable of. But like the Broncos, the Titans also have lost to the Patriots, 38-30, in Foxborough, on a day when New England's lineup was badly depleted because of injury. As that game approached, New England's chances looked dim because its defense was so undermanned, but Brady and the offense carried the load, exceeding anything McNair could manage to overcome a difficult challenge.

That being the case, it might seem it matters little which team the Patriots draw in two weeks, because they already have beaten two of the possibilities and the third, Baltimore, seems the kind of team Belichick's defense destroys because it has a one-dimensional offense and an inexperienced quarterback who very likely will be mystified at what he sees. Or more to the point, what he sees too late.

That is all true, but the Broncos and Titans are as dangerous as any team in the AFC field, so anyone who says, "Who can beat 'em?" shows a basic ignorance of the competition or blindness to the realities of life in the NFL.

Certainly the Patriots should be favored in two weeks when they host a second-round playoff game, and in the AFC title game as well if they get there. A 14-2 record, strong defense, and home field have earned them that.

But there are landmines out there in the presence of the Broncos, Titans, Colts, and to a lesser extent the Chiefs, that should not be minimized if the Patriots are to return to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

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  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 14 2 0 .875 348 238
Dolphins 10 6 0 .625 311 261
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Jets 6 10 0 .375 283 299
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