It was getting ugly.
Tim Tebow and Lance Ball and Willie McGahee were running and running and running. The Patriots defenders couldn’t stop anything, and the Denver crowd was getting louder and louder. Two plays into the second quarter, the Broncos were up 13-7, and the crowd wanted blood. Denver was perched on the New England 8-yard line, and there seemed to be very little doubt as to what the Broncos were going to do: run the ball. After all, Denver had 15 carries for 167 yards in the first quarter, and it was facing a measly little fourth-and-1 against a defense that, to paraphrase one linebacker, hadn’t been able to stop a nosebleed.
Instead, Denver coach John Fox waved on his field goal unit. Matt Prater banged home a 26-yarder, and the Broncos made it 16-7.
Fox may have well have waved the white flag. Given the opening, New England suddenly had new life. The Patriots answered with a scoring drive of their own, and after three Denver fumbles in the second quarter, had turned a 16-7 deficit into a 27-16 halftime lead on the way to an eventual 41-23 win over Tebow and the Broncos (click here for the complete recap).
“It’s great to come out here and win. That was a real good win for our football team. Give the players all the credit: They did a real good job today against a good football team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I’m just really proud of the way they responded to the challenge. They stepped up and played good football today.”
After hearing all week about the Next Big Thing, the Patriots went out and proved that while Tebow and the Broncos are a great story, they might not be ready for prime time. In crunch time -- which came between the second and third quarter on Sunday -- the Patriots maintained their poise, made the adjustments and seized the opportunities when they were presented to them.
Meanwhile, Tebow and the Broncos made key mistakes in big moments. There was Fox’s decision to kick the field goal instead of going for it, as well as fumbles from Ball and Tebow and a muffed punt from Denver punt returner Quan Cosby. The Patriots turned those turnovers into 13 points, and all of a sudden, for New England, it wasn’t that ugly anymore.
“[We] scored on our first three possessions, and we felt like we were moving the ball pretty well,” said Tebow, who finished 11-for-22 for 194 yards, “but then we put [the ball] on the ground, and that’s something you can’t do vs. a great team.”
Meanwhile, Brady and the Patriots played keepaway from Tebow throughout the second quarter and into the third. Denver ran just nine plays from scrimmage from the start of the second quarter until there was just 9:43 left in the third quarter. In that stretch, the Patriots went from a 13-7 deficit to a 27-16 lead. The Broncos wouldn’t cut the lead to single digits the rest of the way.
“We executed our game plan,” said veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. “We knew they were going to come out fighting, come out fast. But our main goal was to weather the storm. We knew going into the game we were going to have to adjust.”
Despite a horrific start, New England was able to hang on, make the necessary changes and climb its way back into the game. Along the way, the Patriots displayed the sort of mental toughness that has become one of the hallmarks of this team. It’s the sort of resolve the Pats will need to display more of between now and the end of the regular season, and it’s something they’ll need by the truckload if they want to play deep into January.
“It was a good day for us. It was a very emotional game. The place was really rocking early. We showed some mental toughness, playing hard for sixty minutes,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “I thought we really played well for all sixty minutes for the first time all season.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon in Denver.
THE PATRIOTS CAN BE SIXTY-MINUTE MEN
It wasn’t perfect, but as Brady would say in his postgame presser, it was as close to a complete game as the Patriots have played as of late. They got four solid quarters on offense -- including the rarest of rare events, a first-quarter touchdown from Chad Ochocinco. (The combination of the two is like something out of Haley’s Comet.) The New England offense put points on the board in all four quarters, including 20 in the second. And while the Patriots defense would gladly like a mulligan on the first quarter (a 15-minute stretch when the defense played as bad as it had all season), they certainly locked things up over the final three quarters: New England allowed 218 total yards in the first quarter and 169 in the second quarter. Combine all of that with an excellent afternoon on special teams, and it’s easy to see why Brady would feel the way he does, especially considering the last time that they came anywhere close to a similar effort was back on Nov. 13 against the Jets.
By the numbers: The 27 first-half points scored by the Patriots on Sunday against the Broncos are the most in over a year -- they scored 33 at Chicago on Dec. 12, 2010.
Money quote: “We take it drive-by-drive and try to take it play-by-play. We answered their first score. We didn’t answer their second score, but we kept it close. Once we got some turnovers from our defense, that really sparked us.” -- Brady on the performance of the New England offense
ADJUSTMENTS CAN PAY OFF
It’s an easy thing to point out, but several of the New England defenders said after the game that the tweaks that were made in the first half paid dividends in the second quarter, as well as the rest of the game. No one was all that interested in getting specific about what they did or noticed coming from the Denver offense, but one of the biggest adjustments was a simple one: better tackling. The Patriots had an awful first quarter when it came to bringing down Denver ball-carriers, with lots of high tackling that allowed players like Tebow, Lance Ball and Willis McGahee to snap off huge yards on the ground early. (On Tebow’s nine-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter, Rob Ninkovich, Andre Carter, James Ihedigbo and Matthew Slater all had clean shots on Tebow between the 9-yard line and the end zone, but all of them couldn’t connect.) Things sharpened up in the second quarter and into the second half, as Denver scored just 10 points over the final three quarters.
By the numbers: The Patriots allowed 218 total yards in the first quarter and 169 over the final three quarters. In addition, Denver had 15 rushes for 167 yards in the first quarter (according to Elias, the most in any quarter against a team that had Bill Belichick as its head coach), but New England allowed 85 rushing yards the rest of the way. (Regardless, the 252 rushing yards allowed is the most the Patriots have allowed this season -- the previous high was the 170 that New England yielded last week in the win over Washington.)
Money quote: “We needed to change our spacing. So whether it’s an odd spacing or an even spacing, there are some advantages to each and we were in a little more odd spacing to try to keep that leverage on the formation. They gave us a lot of shifting early in the game. A lot of shifting and motion and change formation, so we were able to settle down for a combination of reasons, but one of them was just to balance out the defense and help us a little bit.” -- Belichick on the changes the Patriots defense made in the first half
WHEN IT COMES TO SPIKING THE FOOTBALL, ROB GRONKOWSKI HAS NOTHING ON TOM BRADY
The Patriots quarterback was demonstrably fired up on several occasions Sunday, happily woofing as he came off the field following his first-quarter touchdown pass to Chad Ochocinco. He also added a 1-yard touchdown run up the middle with 1:12 left in the first half that he punctuated with a thunderous spike that likely made Gronkowski proud. (Brady later admitted almost sheepishly as to why he spiked the ball as he did. ““I don’t get in the end zone very often -- maybe once or twice per season -- so when I do, I get pretty excited,” he said with a grin. “It’s nice to score. It’s usually once a year for me.”) After a slow start, Brady finished 23-for-34 for 320 yards and two touchdowns (one to Hernandez and the other to Ochocinco). Despite the fact that both of his touchdown passes came in the first half, he was probably at his best in the second half, when he went 11-for-13 for 149 yards in the second half, including 5-for-5 for 101 yards in the fourth quarter.
By the numbers: After throwing for 320 yards against the Broncos and 4,593 yards through 14 games this year, Brady is on pace to finish the season with 5,249 passing yards. Only two NFL players have thrown for 5,000 or more yards in a season -- Dan Marino, who had an NFL record 5,084 in 1984, and Drew Brees, with 5,069 in 2008. The most yards Brady has ever thrown in a season is 4,806 in 2007.
Money quote: “I said it before the game, he is still the best out there in my opinion. When you make mistakes against a guy like that, he is going to make you pay. That is pretty much what happened all day. ... He is just patient. He knows his guys; he knows where everyone is going to be. He is the best all-around quarterback that I know. That is what you expect out of him; he’s been doing it for years.” -- Denver cornerback Champ Bailey on Brady
THE PATRIOTS’ ABILITY TO FORCE TURNOVERS REMAINS PERHAPS THE MOST CONSISTENT THING ABOUT THEIR DEFENSE
The most important sequence of the afternoon came during one eight-minute stretch in the second quarter, when New England forced three turnovers, turned them into 13 points and turned the tide in a game that was threatening to get out of hand. On the first turnover (which came with 8:37 left in the first half and the Broncos leading 16-14), Denver’s Lance Ball fumbled the ball away and New England quickly turned that into a 21-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. On the Broncos’ next possession -- three plays after the Gostkowski field goal -- defensive end Mark Anderson poked the ball away from Tebow (he also recovered the football) at the 4:32 mark. The Patriots turned that into a touchdown with a 1-yard plunge from Brady that made it 24-16 with 1:12 left in the first half. And with 14 seconds remaining in the half, Denver punt returner Quan Cosby fumbled away a punt return. Again, the Patriots took advantage, with Gostkowski adding his second field goal of the afternoon, a 34-yarder to make it 27-16 at the half. For a team that has occasionally struggled to force turnovers this season, it was a huge sequence that ultimately proved the difference in the game.
By the numbers: After registering three takeaways on Sunday against Denver (and after Houston was minus-3 on the day after losing one and seeing T.J. Yates throw a pair of picks), the Patriots are now plus-12 in the takeaway department, the best total in the AFC.
Money quote: “Yeah, and it’s always good to be able to get the ball out a couple times, and offensively we were able to capitalize on some opportunities. We had a good long drive there after Denver had scored the second time and that gave us a chance to settle down a little bit on defense, and of course getting the three points at the end of the half, that was good, too.” -- Belichick on the Patriots' ability to force turnovers in the second quarter
THE PATRIOTS HAVE TWO TIGHT ENDS
Lost in the overwhelming wave of Gronkness of the last month or so, it’s easy to forget that the Patriots actually have two tight ends. And on a Sunday afternoon where the Broncos channeled their defensive energies toward stopping Gronkowski (he also spent some time -- probably more than usual -- working as a blocker in hopes of keeping Brady clean), Aaron Hernandez had one of the best days of his career. He had a career-best nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. It was his third career 100-yard game, and included a 46-yard reception in the first quarter where he got a block from Chad Ochocinco to spring him for a gain that would set up the Brady-to-Ochocinco 33-yard pass play two plays later. His touchdown came on a 1-yarder midway through the second quarter when Brady offered a sweet play-action fake to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and hit Hernandez with a quick pass over the middle.
By the numbers: Hernandez scored his sixth touchdown of the season on a 1-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. He also had six touchdown receptions as a rookie in 2010.
Money quote: “You never who is going to be heavily involved. That’s what is so great about the game; it takes a team effort every single week. You don’t know who is going to be the guy getting the ball every single week. It happened to be him this week. He played great. He juked a lot of guys, got a lot of extra yards. I loved watching him do that kind of stuff, so it’s cool.” -- Gronkowski on Hernandez’ performance on Sunday
GOING FORWARD, THE PASS RUSH WILL NEED TO GET A BOOST
It looks like defensive end Andre Carter will face season-ending surgery on a quad injury he suffered in the first quarter. Against the Broncos, the Patriots were able to get good pressure down the stretch defensive end with Mark Anderson (who got two sacks) as well a single sack from linebacker Rob Ninkovich and a half-sack each from defensive linemen Kyle Love and Gerard Warren. But if Carter is lost for the rest of the season, it will almost certainly tax the depth of the New England pass rush, which isn’t all that deep to begin with. Anderson, who remains more of a situational pass rusher as opposed to a three-down lineman, could take some of Carter’s snaps. It could also mean more snaps for Eric Moore, who has displayed some pass rushing ability from the defensive end spot (in the handful of snaps he’s been out there). There’s also the possibility that the Patriots would decide to promote rookie Markell Carter from the practice squad. Carter has impressed when called upon this season -- he’s won Practice Player of the Week honors six times this year.
By the numbers: Against the Broncos, Anderson registered two sacks to bring his 2011 total to 9.0. If he gets one more sack the Patriots will have two players with double-digit sacks with Andre Carter’s 10.0. The last time two Patriots had 10 or more sacks was 1985 with Andre Tippett (16.5) and Garin Veris (10.0). It’s happened two times in Patriots history -- in addition to 1985, in 1977, Tony McGee had 12 sacks and Ray Hamilton had 10.
Money quote: “That’s tough. Andre puts so much in with his leadership alone. He gives a lot to this team. To see him go down is tough. Anytime someone goes down it’s tough, but to see a guy like that—he hasn’t really won a lot in his career, but now he’s winning, he’s happy here, he’s having fun, he’s playing well—to see him go down, it’s a blow. We had to have guys step up. We stepped up and got this ‘W’ for him.” -- Wilfork on the possible loss of Carter
NEW ENGLAND SPECIAL TEAMS IS CAPABLE OF OUTPERFORMING A HIGHLY REGARDED COUNTERPART
Much was made about Denver’s special teamers heading into Sunday’s game (particularly the Broncos’ ever-clutch kicker Matt Prater), but it was a very good effort for the New England special teamers -- maybe their best of the season. Zoltan Mesko punted four times and dropped three of them inside the 20 and averaged 40.5 yards per punt. Three of the seven kickoffs from Stephen Gostkowski went for touchbacks, and the four that were returned went for just 71 yards total. Gostkowski also connected on both field goal attempts. The coverage units also had an excellent day -- they knocked the ball away from Quan Cosby on a punt return at the end of the first half, which led to a field goal. Julian Edelman had three special teams tackles and three punts returns. All in all, a good afternoon for New England's special teams unit.
By the numbers: Denver’s best start to a drive came at its own 29-yard line.
Money quote: “We got our scoring opportunities, and that was good. Our coverage was good. We took advantages of a couple of their mistakes. They mishandled the kickoff and it cost them some field position and they had to settle for a punt and that gave us three points at the end of the half and they missed an extra point and we were able to capitalize on those opportunities and take advantage of the ones that we had to. So special teams, those guys really worked hard this week. We knew they’d have a big challenge, but their specialists, their returners, their kickers, their physical coverage players, they’ve got some good gunners so that was a big challenge for us this week. Denver’s good in the kicking game, no question about it. They’ve got good players in the kicking game.” -- Belichick on New England’s special teams play Sunday
THE PATRIOTS WERE IMPRESSED WITH TIM TEBOW
They may have collectively started to grit their teeth by the end of the week every time his name was brought up, but by the end of the game, the New England defense appeared to have a real level of respect for Tim Tebow, who had 194 yards passing and 93 yards rushing (he picked up a pair of rushing touchdowns). You already knew about Tebow’s running ability, but he did open some eyes with some good throws in the first half, including a 22-yard pass play to Demaryius Thomas that set up Denver’s second touchdown of the first quarter. In addition, he later found Thomas for a 39-yarder midway through the fourth quarter that set up Denver’s final touchdown of the afternoon. He’s still not a polished product when it comes to delivering the ball, but he clearly has a good system around him where he will continue to flourish and improve, as long as he stays healthy.
By the numbers: Tebow’s 194 passing yards was the second-lowest yardage output for an opposing quarterback against the Patriots this season (Jets QB Mark Sanchez had 166 yards through the air in the Pats' win on Oct. 9), while his 93 rushing yards was the highest total for any quarterback against the Patriots this season (Miami’s Chad Henne had seven carries for 59 yards in the season opener on Sept. 12.)
Money quote: “Yeah, I Tebowed. Absolutely. Are you kidding me? Trust me, everybody in the world hears about this guy. He’s a very, very good athlete. I said it last week, he’s a winner. You look at his whole resume, the guy knows how to win. He knows how to win. Anytime you speak to a team or little kids or whatever about winning, I’m pretty sure his name’s going to come up. How he does it, he does it. It’s part of the game. I’m pretty sure I won’t be the last one, and I wasn’t the first one. That’s what he does; he put it out there. I wanted to steal it. I don’t think he’ll mind, just for one play.” -- Wilfork, who Tebowed after one of New England’s sacks
AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, HAT AND T-SHIRT GAMES STILL MEAN SOMETHING TO THE PATRIOTS ... ESPECIALLY THE YOUNGER ONES
It’s almost become a cliche around these parts -- the phrase “hat and T-shirt game” was first coined by former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi when describing a possible division-clincher. (as in, when you get back to your locker after you win, there’s a hat and a T-shirt there waiting for you). And after Sunday’s second-half dismantling of the Broncos, the Patriots' 11-3 record was good enough to clinch the AFC East. Despite the fact that hat and T-shirt games have become routine for this franchise since 2001, it’s important to remember that many of the younger players on this roster were still in their formative years when this franchise began it’s run of success 11 years ago -- Aaron Hernandez was 12 years old when Adam Vinatieri connected to beat the Rams that night in the Superdome. As a result, there’s still some wide-eyed newness to the whole “winning a division title.” That’s why you see Twitter pictures like this. And this.
By the numbers: This marks the ninth division title in 11 seasons for New England.
Money quote: “That’s one of our goals at the start of the season, to meet the challenge of our division, and our players have done that. We are 6-2 on the road. They’ve done a good job. They’ve met a lot of challenges and this was a big one. Those guys did a great job today. We got contributions from everybody. Really, you’ve got to give the whole team credit.” -- Belichick on winning the division title