The Denver Broncos havent been to the playoffs since 2006, so theyre in no position and certainly no mood to judge the quality of the opponents theyre dispatching with all this last-minute magic.
Theyre 7-1 since Tim Tebow took over and started engineering a series of outrageous second-half comebacks. Those opponents, though, have a combined record of 39-52.
With Tom Brady and the powerful New England Patriots (10-3) coming to town Sunday, the Broncos (8-5) see this as a chance to prove theyre not just a curiosity but a contender.
Yeah, well, we need to prove it to ourselves, star cornerback Champ Bailey said. Weve played against some teams that were kind of struggling. Wed like to go put it together against a top-quality quarterback like Brady.
Its not just Tebow whos facing what could be his toughest test since he started the final three games last season and then supplanted an ineffective Kyle Orton in October after a 1-4 start.
Denvers dominant defense, which has two hiccups against the multifaceted Lions and Packers will face another formidable challenge in the Patriots, led by Brady, whos thrown for 33 touchdown passes, 15 of them to big tight end Rob Gronkowski and nine to Wes Welker, who already has 100 catches.
Hes getting them all the ball, Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said. Nobodys really starving for catches.
And so, the AFC East-leading Patriots are feasting on opponents, putting up an AFC-best 31 points a game.
That kind of firepower means the AFC West-leading Broncos notoriously slow-starting offense will have to keep pace, and given New Englands defensive shortcomings, this game could turn into a shootout.
Only twice have the Broncos piled up points since Tebow took over in October. They put up 38 at Oakland and 35 at Minnesota. But six times theyve failed to score even 20 points with Tebow starting.
Thats why so many see this game as the Broncos best barometer yet.
The Patriots have the pedigree the Broncos used to have when they, too, were a perennial playoff team. But Denver hasnt punched its ticket to the postseason party since losing to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game after the 2005 season.
Obviously New England has been a team thats been in the playoffs for the last decade or whatever. So theyve got a lot of players whove been there, Broncos pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil said. Theyre the team thats always been in the playoffs. We want to establish ourselves as that team. This is a good challenge for us.
The Broncos long have been Bradys bugaboo, beating him five times in six tries, including a 27-13 win Jan. 14, 2006, when Bailey returned a game-changing interception 100 yards, helping hand Brady his first playoff loss and ending New Englands 10-game postseason winning streak and a shot at an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl title.
Considering how much they won the previous years, they were pretty much unbeatable, Bailey said. To get a play like that and to change the game, to get a win against a team like that, yes, its a special moment.
With the Patriots going in for the go-ahead score, Bailey stepped in front of Troy Brown in the end zone for the pick and sprinted down the sideline, only to get knocked out of bounds at the 1 by hustling tight end Ben Watson.
Yeah. I thought my guy Nick Ferguson we all remember him I thought if he looked inside and blocked that guy coming across the field, then I would have scored, Bailey said with a smile. But we still ended up scoring on the next play.
This game doesnt hold nearly as much significance, but in many ways its the most intriguing matchup at Mile High in years.
The Patriots could clinch a playoff spot and inch closer to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which could prove the best salve for their defensive troubles.
The Broncos could take a lot of pressure off themselves over the final two weeks of the season, with games against Buffalo on the road and at home against Kansas City.
Bailey, the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback, will have his work cut out for him, covering either Welker in the slot or the Patriots two big tight ends in Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
What makes them so tough is their size, Bailey said. I can keep up with them with my feet, but its just the pushing and the shoving and the ball placement. Its tougher when you have a quarterback like Tom Brady, because he puts the ball where nobody else can get it.
Then, he might have to chase around Welker, the 5-9 dynamo whos putting up big numbers himself.
Its like night and day, but theyre all productive, Bailey said. Weve got some tools that were going to use, and hopefully they work.