FOXBORO -- In a year when pro football pundits tried to search for religious symbolism in every move made (or even stat compiled) by Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, it was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady who delivered a real message of faith Saturday night to the nonbelievers who might doubt New England’s abilities this postseason.
In an AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium, Brady authored a performance straight out of Ezekiel 25:17. (For those of you who aren’t necessarily theologically inclined, check out the version delivered here by the immortal Jules Winfield.) Saturday’s show was pure domination, as the Patriots dismantled the Broncos, 45-10 (click here for the complete recap), thanks in large part to six touchdown passes from Brady and five sacks of Tebow.
Brady threw three touchdown passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski and one each to Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez, and used a quick strike offense to put together seven scoring drives on the night. At its best, it was a scorched earth performance that recalled the days of the 2007 season when the Patriots were regularly rag-dolling the opposition. Meanwhile, the New England defense submitted perhaps its finest and most performance of the season, holding Denver to one touchdown of consequence on the night.
As a result, the Patriots advanced to the AFC championship game, which will be held next Sunday at Gillette Stadium against either Baltimore or Houston.
“We’ll enjoy this one for a little while, and then we’ll find out who we have in the AFC championship,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “It’s an honor to be in that game.”
With the win, the Patriots were able to vanquish some of the demons associated with their last three playoff appearances, all unseemly defeats that ultimately sparked speculation in some corners about the legacy of Brady and Belichick. Neither of them wanted to talk extensively about big-picture issues in the wake of what happened Saturday night, but it was clear that the win was more satisfying than many the duo has enjoyed since they’ve been together.
“You lose a few playoff games, and it’s a very bitter way to end the season and it sits on your mind for quite a long time,” Brady said. “For us to come out and play the way we did, have a very solid performance in the most important game of the year, is very gratifying.”
In many ways, that 1,456-day drought -- which began after a 21-12 win over the Chargers in the 2007 AFC championship game -- came to an end in such spectacular fashion Saturday night that it begs the question: Is this the start of another run, one that could ultimately put this team alongside the 2006 Colts and 2009 Saints as teams with great offenses but statistically questionable defenses that ended up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy once all is said and done? Or was it simply a case of the Patriots walloping an inferior opponent that clearly wasn’t ready for prime time?
That answer will come in the next month. In the meantime, Brady may have caused New England football fans to be born again in their belief that a trip to the Super Bowl is their divine right, while sending a clear message to the rest of he NFL: When it comes to matters of faith, you may doubt these Patriots (still the least-flawed team in a wildly flawed conference), but do so at your own peril.
“I think that we have eight days until the biggest game of the year,” Brady said. “From this point on, everyone will be focused on what we need to do to be better next week and hopefully come out and play for another championship.”
Here are nine other things we learned Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.
SOMEWHERE, DICK LEBEAU WAS THROWING UP IN HIS MOUTH
The Patriots were able to contain a Denver offense throughout the night by NOT making several of the mistakes that the Steelers did last week. For the most part, New England was able to maintain gap discipline and control the rushing lanes and keep the quarterback bottled up in the pocket. (Tebow had five carries for 13 yards on the night.) But most importantly, the Patriots did not allow Tebow to beat them deep all night, as the quarterback went 9-for-26 for 136 yards with zero touchdowns and five sacks. It all worked nicely for the New England defense, which turned in its most complete performance of the season: The Broncos were held to 144 rushing yards, 136 passing yards and 252 total net yards, the fewest passing yards and net yards they allowed all season.
By the numbers: The Patriots’ 252 net yards allowed was their lowest total of the season. The second lowest of the season was the 255 yielded in an Oct. 9 win over the Jets. In addition, Tebow was the only quarterback who faced the Patriots twice this season but did not throw a pick.
Money quote: “Our job as the defense is to stop the opponent. Whatever we score, make them scoreless. That’s the [mindset] we have. We don’t want to depend on offense to score 30 points, just thinking that each week is going to be like that. We aren’t going to set ourselves up for failure. The defense, we always go out and set goals; we want to create turnovers or we want to put our offense in good field position.” -- Vince Wilfork on the defensive mindset of the Patriots
SLOW STARTS WEREN’T A PROBLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT
The Patriots, who averaged five points per game in the first quarter over the course of the regular season, had insisted they were capable of playing 60 minutes of quality football, and they proved it Saturday against the Broncos. They scored their first first-quarter touchdown since Dec. 18 (the last time they played Denver) when Brady engineered a five-play, 80-yard drive that took just 1:51 and was highlighted by a ridiculous 43-yard carry around left end by Aaron Hernandez. (The first series ended with a 7-yard scoring strike from Brady to Wes Welker.) After a Tebow fumble, the Patriots then tacked on another first-quarter score when Brady hit Gronkowski on a 10-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 with 7:17 left in the first, which made it 14-0. It was a similar story on defense, as the Patriots held Tebow to 3-for-10 in the first half and 28 yards passing. The Broncos simply couldn’t get started early, as they ran six plays in Patriots territory in the first half.
By the numbers: The 14 points the Patriots put up in the first quarter tied a season high for New England. (They also posted 14 in a Dec. 11 win over the Redskins and 14 in a Sept. 25 loss to the Bills.) Their 35 in the first half was a season high.
Money quote: “Yeah, that run to Aaron really got us off to a great start. He’s great with the ball in his hands. All those guys played well; all the skill guys, the offensive line played awesome. They threw a lot of stuff at us and I thought we really responded well. Certainly the turnovers, I wish we wouldn’t have those but we can learn from those and hopefully go out and play better next week.” -- Brady on the Patriots' fast start
TOM BRADY LIKES SATURDAY NIGHT DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF GAMES IN FOXBORO
The quarterback has saved some of his best work for divisional playoff games at home on Saturday nights. Brady, who is now 3-0 at home in such contests (the Tuck Rule game, his 2007 masterpiece against the Jaguars, and Saturday night against the Broncos), was 26-for-34 for 363 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. (He even threw in a punt for good measure, a quick kick on a third-down play that ended up going for 48 yards.) He kept his foot on the gas all evening, directing six scoring drives that lasted less than four minutes in length (the longest was an eight-play, 52-yard drive that took 3:35 and ended with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski). As they have done for a good chunk of the season, Brady and the Patriots utilized the no huddle to their advantage -- overall, the Patriots operated out of the no huddle for 33 of the 64 plays from scrimmage.
By the numbers: In those Saturday night home divisional playoff games, Brady is a combined 84-for-114 (74 percent) with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
Money quote: “What can you say? He’s Tom Brady. He’s been around the block a few times, and if you’re not ready to punch him in the mouth, he’s going to eat you up all night.” -- Denver cornerback Champ Bailey on Brady’s performance
AARON HERNANDEZ IS FLEXIBLE
The Patriots have used the tight end at various spots over the course of the season, but on Saturday night he was at his versatile best, lining up for several snaps in the backfield in an attempt to hide him from the Denver defenders. Hernandez, who has been lined up flush next to the tackle, in the slot and split wide, has been there before -- including taking many reps there in training camp. He ended up with 61 yards rushing (including his game-high 43-yarder) on five carries, to go along with four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown. He was conked on the head early in the fourth quarter on a goal-line run and left the game (he could be seen on the sidelines getting checked out for a concussion, and said after the game that he feels “great”), but it was a standout performance for the young tight end, who, like his counterpart Gronkowski, remains a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
By the numbers: Hernandez’s 43-yard run in the first quarter was the third-longest run in Patriots postseason history, trailing only a 78-yard touchdown run by Curtis Martin vs. Pittsburgh (Jan. 5, 1997) and a 45-yard run by Robert Weathers at Miami (Jan. 12, 1986). It’s the longest run of Hernandez’s career. (He had 19-yard run in the season finale vs. Buffalo on Jan. 1.)
Money quote: “They’ve used that before and it’s something we have seen. Didn’t look like it, but we had seen it.” -- Denver coach John Fox on the Patriots' use of Hernandez as a running back
THERE ARE FEW PLAYERS WHO COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER LIKE HERNANDEZ AND GRONKOWSKI
One of the things that make them such a matchup nightmare is the that that the two bring such a complementary set of skills to the same position. Gronkowski, who had 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns against the Broncos, is a big, physical type who is strong enough to outmuscle defensive backs and fast enough to box out linebackers. He runs so hard, there are times where it appears he’s seeking out contact. Then there’s Hernandez, who remains a fluid chess piece capable of being shuffled around the field to a variety of positions, a long and lean receiver in the mold of Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. The two present such vastly different skills sets but are fantastic at playing off each other, so much so that after two years in the NFL they are one of the most dynamic pass-catching combos in the league. While Hernandez was at his best on Saturday coming away with a 43-yard gain on the early end-around, Gronkowski’s highlight likely was the 12-yard touchdown catch (his first of three touchdown catches on the night), an acrobatic grab on which he laid out near the corner of the end zone for one of his sweeter touchdown catches of the season.
By the numbers: Gronkowski tied an NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a postseason game with three. It is the 17th time in NFL history a player has had three touchdown receptions in a postseason game. Gronkowski and Dave Casper of the Raiders (vs. the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 24, 1977) are the only tight ends of that group.
Money quote: “I’ll tell you what ... these two [Hernandez and Gronkowski] are changing the game. I think that you’re going to see tight ends get drafted that would have been fourth- or fifth-round picks will probably be drafted higher because of what these guys are able to do. You’re going to see other teams try to match guys with their receiving tight ends by trying to match them with a guy that can do some of the things that our tight ends can do. So, I think these two are changing the game.” -- Patriots offensive lineman Brian Waters
DESPITE HIS STAT LINE, THE PATRIOTS ARE NOT GOING TO SAY A BAD WORD ABOUT TIM TEBOW
Tebow got off to a bad start on Saturday night, and as the game continued, it was clear that he was playing checkers while the New England defense was playing chess. A quarterback who had so many tricks up his sleeve over the course of an unbelievable season ran out of surprises on Saturday against the Patriots. While the Broncos were able to run the ball, they couldn’t do it with any consistency (Denver had 144 rushing yards, but a relatively subpar 3.6 yards per carry average). And thanks to the constant presence of a deep safety, Tebow was unable to go deep like he did the week before against Pittsburgh. (He ended up 9-for-26 for 136 yards passing.) But after the game, the Patriots had nothing but praise for Tebow. It will be interesting to see if there’s any improvement of his much-discussed throwing mechanics, especially given the fact that now he’ll have a whole offseason to work with coaches and teammates.
By the numbers: The Patriots sacked Tebow five times on Saturday night, matching their regular-season high, which they accomplished three times (once each against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Oct. 30, Mark Sanchez and the Jets on Nov. 13 and Matt Moore and the Dolphins on Dec. 24). In addition, Tebow’s passer rating of 52.7 was the second worst of any quarterback New England faced, when compared with the numbers from the regular season. (Kansas City’s Tyler Palko posted a 48.3. back on Nov. 21.)
Money quote: “Man, I wish I would’ve had that last one. It would’ve been nice to have that last one because I missed him a few times in the first game. That would’ve just been the icing on the cake right there.” -- Ninkovich, who just missed a fourth-quarter sack of Tebow
MATT LIGHT CONTINUES TO HAVE A VERY UNDERRATED SEASON
The New England left tackle was at the heart of a standout performance from the offensive line against Denver. The veteran lineman absolutely smothered rookie pass rusher Von Miller when Miller was working off the edge, and in one instance, chased Miller back across the line after he was called for encroachment. (Miller scurried back.) As a group, the Patriots offensive line was able to stymie the Broncos pass rush almost completely -- there were several times when Brady wasn’t even touched. The Broncos didn’t do much blitzing -- they were able to bring some pressure in the second half -- but when they did dial it up, the New England offensive line was up to the task. In the end, Brady wasn’t sacked on the night. (It was the third time since the start of the regular season the Patriots weren’t pinned with a sack on their record.)
By the numbers: In their last three postseason losses, Brady was hit a total of 19 times. On Saturday against the Broncos, Brady was hit twice.
Money quote: “We had a couple at the end, but overall we played penalty-free and that was a big help to us offensively, as well. We weren’t in a lot of long-yardage situations. As you said, no sacks. A couple of runs that weren’t great, but we didn’t have a lot of sacks and penalties, so we were usually in a fairly favorable down-and-distance situation.” -- Belichick on the performance of the New England offensive line
ROB NINKOVICH IS THE X-FACTOR
The veteran linebacker struggled to set the edge early in the Dec. 18 win over the Broncos in Denver, as he (and the rest of the Patriots run defense) looked bad early against the Broncos. New England settled down and made the adjustments, but the image of Ninkovich whiffing on a pair of big tackles against Tebow and the Broncos was an enduring image. On Saturday he was the Patriots' best overall defender, doing an excellent job setting the edge and working as a pass rusher, bringing constant pressure from both sides. He had a first-quarter strip sack, and working as an outside linebacker and defensive end throughout the evening he ended with five tackles (four solo), 1.5 sacks (for 9.5 yards), one tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and one forced fumble.
By the numbers: As colleague Kirk Minihane Tweeted last week, Ninkovich was the only player in the league (other than Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs) to finish the regular season with at least six sacks and two interceptions.
Money quote: “You’ve got to give him a ton of credit. You’ve got to prepare for him all week, for a guy that can run an option, get out of the pocket and do things on the run. So, we were very stressed all week on keeping him contained, keeping the run contained and not letting the ball outside.” -- Ninkovich on preparing for Tebow
DEVIN McCOURTY CONTINUES TO SHOW VERSATILITY
The Patriots shuffled McCourty from corner to safety and back again throughout much of the first half, utilizing him (most of the time) at corner for the first two downs and as a deep safety on third down. It was the second consecutive game McCourty spent time at safety, and he played a big role in not allowing Tebow to chuck it deep. (The longest pass play Tebow was able to convert was a 41-yarder to Demaryius Thomas in garbage time, when Thomas picked up most of the yards after the catch on a short connection to the left side.) After a rough ride for much of the regular season, it was another relatively positive outing for McCourty, who continues to show improvement -- as well as some positional flexibility that will surely help out the Patriots down the road.
By the numbers: McCourty finished with four tackles (three solo), good for third on the team among defensive backs.
Money quote: “We still have to go and prepare for whoever our opponent is next week. This game is over. We’re not playing the Denver Broncos again next week. We’re playing a team that’s going to deserve to be playing in the AFC championship game right along with us, so it helps a little, but it’s all about preparing for next week.” -- McCourty on what a game like Saturday can do for a team’s confidence