By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Remember when the Patriots had to travel 2,000 miles to take on a superhuman deity? Nah, neither do we. But, class, we do remember when the Pats traveled 2,000 miles to take on an upstart, first-place team with unexpected playoff aspirations that was on a six-game winning streak led by a quarterback in Tim Tebow who has become the most polarizing figure in the NFL since Michael Vick’s return to the league from a stint in federal prison, or at least since last year when BrettFavre spent three months stumbling around, embarrassing himself and his team while simultaneously tarnishing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
No, the Pats trip to Denver and subsequent 41-23 win, their sixth straight, wasn’t quite what all the pre-game hype made it out to be (and if you don’t believe that, just ask Tom Brady, who told Yahoo! Sports’ Michael Silver after the win, “I’ve been in a lot of big games, Mikey. Games a lot bigger than this.”), but it was still an intense, at times breathtaking contest that settled, or at least went a long way toward settling a lot of arguments buzzing around the two teams that played it. On the Pats side, the game pointed out that they are able to win a playoff-style game against a quality opponent in a hostile environment while again displaying that as a team, they possess the mental toughness to absorb their opponent’s best shot, get up, dust themselves off and make more than enough plays to win. After one quarter on Sunday, the Pats looked worse on defense than they have all season, giving up a whopping 167 rushing yards and 218 total yards over that stretch. Just take a second to process such a claim. But from the second quarter on, they were a different team on that side of the ball, making the right adjustments to contain and control the Broncos running game while forcing Denver to have to throw to keep up. and getting out of Dodge allowing just 175 totals yards over the final three quarters. While that defensive metamorphosis was occurring, the Pats were putting up their most complete performance on offense since the 37-16 shellacking of the Jets back in Week 10. Without Deion Branch, their already thin wide receiver corps was even thinner but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and company from rolling up a season-high 41 points while piling up another 451 total yards. It wound up being one of the best, most satisfying wins of the season for reasons that had zero to do with that it came at the expense of Tebow. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, completely non-denominational as always.
Brady probably would never, ever say it. But he had to have been at least a little bit pissy about the attention showered upon Tebow in the week leading up to Sunday’s game. One guy has won six in a row. The other guy had won five in a row and oh by the way, has three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVP awards and is as much a lock for the Hall of Fame as anyone is in any sport. Maybe that had something to do with the amount of oomph he put into the spike following his second quarter rushing TD, his first since last November. But regardless of all that, Brady was masterful playing in a city where he’d only won once in six previous tries. Playing without Branch, seeing the Broncos double and sometimes triple teaming Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the afternoon and having to stay alert to a fearsome Broncos pass rush, Brady pretty much shrugged and completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards (9.4 YPA) and two TDs to go with that one-yard scoring plunge. He became the second QB in NFL history to throw 35 or more TD passes in three different seasons and if he really lights it up in the final two weeks of the season, he could cross the 40,000 yard mark for his career (not to mention the fact that he’s just 213 yards shy of his career-high in yards for a season and 407 short of 5,000 for this year, both feats he should achieve easily). He bounced right back up after getting absolutely planted on a third quarter sack by Broncos pass rushing demon Elvis Dumervil, and even connected on a 33-yard TD pass to Chad Ochocinco, which may have been his most impressive accomplishment of them all. Brady won’t win his third MVP award this season; Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a mortal lock for that award, as well he should be. But on Sunday, Brady showed that he’s still just as good as anyone, maybe even better.
Running Backs: A-
It’s time to officially declare rookie Stevan Ridley our binky. He’s the most electric runner the Pats have had since Curtis Martin, a big and strong yet shifty, elusive and quick back who can somehow shapeshift when he needs to. Ridley had his most productive game since early October on Sunday, gaining 65 yards on just 11 carries to pace the Pats 141-yard rushing attack. Sometimes, Ridley, who seems to be on the verge of exploding with energy even when there’s nowhere for him to run, looks as though he can’t remember which way the play is supposed to be going. But he does so with the kind of power, vigor and speed that will look even more impressive as he grows into a feature back who gets 20-25 carries per game. Along with Ridley, Danny Woodhead solidified the Pats running game, posting his second straight solid game and adding his first TD of the season, a 10-yard scamper on a perfectly executed draw play late in the third quarter. Even Aaron Hernandez got into the act, lining up in the backfield for a key third down play early in the second quarter and getting sprung for 16 yards and a first down by a massive block by Gronk. About the only disappointing aspect of the running game on Sunday was the lack of production from the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who managed just 17 yards on 10 carries and, although he scored the Pats final TD after the Broncos had made it a two possession game in the fourth, again seemed to have trouble gaining a yard when that’s all the Pats needed. He did catch a couple of dump-offs from Brady and turn them into good gains, Benny just hasn’t been himself for weeks now. Maybe it’s the toe injury he suffered back in October, who knows? But complaining about such things after getting the kind of output the Pats got from their run game on Sunday is nitpicky. The Pats best offensive games of the year have all been when the running game and the passing game are balanced. Sunday, a day when they ran 36 running plays and 34 pass plays, was no exception.
Wide Receivers: B
Seven of Brady’s 23 completions went to wideouts with Branch out of the lineup, but that was enough. Wes Welker was held to just four catches and 41 yards but he still did his usual great job of either moving the chains or at least getting the ball close to them, while setting a new career-high for receiving yards with 1,380. He also moved into second place on the Pats all-time receptions list with 536. Even when he doesn’t have a huge day, Welker, who made one of the prettiest diving catches you’ll ever see on the Pats second TD drive of the game, has a huge day. Ochocinco played 54 snaps in Branch’s absence and although he had just the one catch, it was obviously huge, his first TD as a Patriot. He ran a great route on the play, making a quick double move before faking the corner inside then cutting outside to catch Brady’s pass perfectly in stride and waltzing into the end zone. Ocho also threw a couple of key blocks on the afternoon, making Sunday his most productive day in a Pats uniform despite just the one catch. And Tiquan Underwood showed that if there are any emotional scars left over from last week’s sideline confrontation between Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien of which he was the focal point, that he’s covering them up well. He had a catch and it went for 12 yards. Good job, Tiquan. way to man up and bounce back.
Tight Ends: A
If this were an episode of some cheesy, life lessons-style melodrama on ABC Family, it woukd be called “A-Herb Finally Gets His.” Hernandez, relegated to second banana status all year in the face of Gronk becoming a folk hero, national celebrity and pop culture icon all rolled into one, had a career day on Sunday, catching nine passes for 129 yards and a TD. Hernandez, as has been mentioned here before, is such an athletic specimen for a tight end, it’s nearly impossible for any safety or linebacker to cover him. The Broncos sent their rookie strong safety Quinton Carter after him early on and to say that it was a mismatch would be an insult to pretty much every mismatch ever perpetrated on a football field. It started with a crossing route that went for a 46-yard catch and run on the Pats first drive of the day and went from there. He burned Carter again on his TD, a one-yarder after a perfect play fake by Brady. And on a huge fourth and short in the second quarter right as the Pats were seizing momentum, Brady stumbled after taking the snap, recovered and flipped it to a wide open A-Herb, who then turned upfield, made a couple moves and turned it into a 25-yard pickup. Again, A-Herb is like a giant wide receiver; there have been few tight ends in my memory who possess the kind of speed and moves that he does at his size. And man, has he grown in the maturity department. The fact that with his skills, he;s still been second in line to Gronk pretty much all year but has done nothing but keep his mouth shut and patiently wait his turn for a day like Sunday speaks volumes. What a massive weapon he is. As for Gronk, he was quiet by his standards, especially given the past few weeks. But, as always, he was crucial blocking in the running game and still managed to pull one huge play out of the thin, mile high air, taking a short throw from Brady and turning it into a thunderous, 38-yard gain. Thin wide receiving group? Who cares? Not the Pats, who have the best tight end tandem in the NFL.
Offensive Line: A-
There was one communication breakdown on the right side that led to Dumervil’s ferocious sack of Brady. But other than that, this group once again shined bright. Denver’s rookie phenom Von Miller didn’t get anywhere near Brady all day save for one play on which the Pats QB fumbled the snap. And Dumervil was almost completely neutralized. There are three All-Pros on this offensive line; Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters (who drew some chunks in the gullet when he had to leave the game briefly in the second quarter) and rookie Nate Solder looks like he’s on his way to being one. Denver came in with 37 sacks as a team and got just two, one of which was on a delayed safety blitz. And the fact that the running game produced those 141 yards at just about four yards a pop (Benny’s slow day and Brady’s six attempts for two yards crushed what could have been a much better YPA) spoke volumes about the play of this group as well. It’s a multi-purpose group that’s stayed mostly healthy all year and seems to be getting stronger by the week. That should bode very, very well come playoff time.
Defensive Line: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game B+
There’s no other way to to grade the D than to split the game into the first quarter vs. the last three quarters. 15 rushes for 167 yards in the first, 16 rushes for 85 yards after that. 218 total yards allowed in the first quarter, 175 total yards allowed after that. 16 points allowed in the first quarter (plus 1:13), seven points allowed after that. Whatever wasn’t working in the first quarter was fixed and then some going into the second and those adjustments proved to be the key to the entire game. No defensive group transformed itself from the first quarter to the second more dramatically than the D-line, which was absolutely, completely and thoroughly dominated in the early going. The holes and running lanes created by the Broncos offensive line against Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Pats front were big enough to fit three running backs through, let alone one. The Pats, in a 4-3 alignment, were physically brutalized by the Broncos as Tebow, Willis McGahee (seven carries, 70 yards) and some dude named Lance Ball (11 carries, 64 yards) looked like Fran Tarkenton, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith in rolling to a 16-7 lead. But this group, which sadly lost its best player Andre Carter to a season-ending quad injury late in the first quarter, changed course, switching to a 3-4 base and subsequently making the Denver running game look normal as opposed to otherworldly and forcing Tebow to have to make plays with his not-so-godlike arm. Lots of folks stepped up in the second quarter, starting with Mark Anderson, who took over for Carter and for a stretch, took over the game. He got just three reps before Carter’s injury but played almost the entire rest of the game following it, and responded with two sacks, a forced fumble and recovery, two tackles behind the line of scrimmage and two more pokes at Tebow. If Anderson, who now has nine sacks on the year, is going to get the majority of Carter’s snaps, Sunday was a great way to start showing the coaching staff he can handle the workload. Elsewhere, Kyle Love continued his excellent season, bouncing back from being a chief culprit in the first quarter to being a force afterward. He only registered one tackle but when the look went to a 3-4, he plugged up the middle well enough to allow some of the linebackers and safeties to make plays. Ron Brace made the first play of his Pats career (now almost two full seasons in), forcing one of the Broncos three second quarter fumbles, this one on the first play of the Broncos next possession after the Pats cut the lead to 16-14. And Gerard Warren managed to get a little camera time by saying something Tebow thought was really funny after a third quarter sack. Not having Carter going forward is going to hurt; he’s been the best player on this defense all year. But this defense was last in the league with him so how much worse can it be without him? On Sunday, it was actually a little bit better.
Linebackers: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game: B
Again, a tale of two games. In the first quarter, the creases were so huge, the linebackers didn’t even have time to react before the Broncos running backs were being chased down by the Pats secondary. But Jerod Mayo (who is now somehow making the same money as 49ers star middle backer Patrick Willis, and yes, you read that correctly) and company still wound up getting theirs. Rob Ninkovich probably could have had five sacks if he’d been able to wrap up Tebow a couple more times; as it stands, he also bounced back from being victimized for not being quick enough to set the edge in the first quarter to finishing the day with a very tidy stat line that included a 28-yard sack of Tebow in the fourth quarter that pretty much iced the game. Both Tracy White and Dane Fletcher have likely had better days but both had his moments, with Fletcher in big on Brace’s forced fumble and coming up with the recovery. And there was even a Gary Guyton sighting, which wasn’t terribly exciting. Once the Pats went to that 3-4 in the second quarter, it opened things up for this group and it responded. Just don’t forget, if you guys get the Broncos again come playoff time (and looking at the current scenarios, that’s a very distinct possibility for the divisional round), try to avoid attempting to tackle Tebow high. Go low on Tebow!
Defensive Backs: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game: B
Tebow completed half of his 22 passes for 194 yards and looked like he’s maybe, possibly coming along as a passer in the process. There were a few throws that a real, pure QB would have easily completed and a couple more on which the Broncos receivers settled as comfortably into the enormous dead spots in the middle of the Pats deeper than deep zone as any receiving corps all year. But there was only one really big, really damaging play against this group after the first quarter, a 39-yard, sideline throw on 3rd and 18 in the fourth quarter that was in part a blown coverage by guess who? Yep, Devin McCourty. It didn’t help that Belichick took Sergio Brown out of mothballs to play safety in this one and Brown, who is not a regular defensive player in any football league anywhere in the world, was about 10 seconds and 35 yards late in coming across to help. But given the Broncos struggles throwing the ball (Tebow seems to give up on every pass play on which his first read isn’t open), this group was able to get out of this one relatively scot-free. Maybe some day, Patrick Chung will play again and there will be some semblance of continuity at the safety position (although, to his credit, Nate Jones had a decent game and Matthew Slater made four tackles in just 10 snaps). And with Miami and Buffalom two teams with (to be kind) middling passing attacks coming up prior to the playoffs, there will be plenty of time for guys to get healthy and more comfortable playing together. This is still the weakest of weak points on the Pats defense. But days like Sunday, even when the opponent is limited, have to breed confidence going forward.
Special Teams: B+Coaching: B
What looked like an absolute disaster early became a clinic for in-game coaching later on. The Pats seemed to be the only people on earth who weren’t ready for the Broncos to come out running and running and running some more in the first quarter. Or maybe they were ready and just didn’t recognize some of the Broncos looks and blocking schemes. Either way, what they came in with wasn’t even slightly working so give a truckload of credit to Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for making changes that saved the game for the Pats. On offense, O’Brien had his troops playing as crisp and fluid as in any game all year; the game plan was fantastic and was executed to near perfection by Brady and Co. Any time you get a guy like Belichick matching wits with a guy like Fox, you have to like your chances. But beyond that, the head man and his crew once again got the absolute maximum out of what he has at his disposal and now is looking right down the barrel of yet another AFC, No. 1 seed. With this defensive group, that might garner some Coach of the Year attention in other years. This year, Pats fans will just have to settle for it being yet another stellar showing by the best coach in the league.