FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick’s gridiron consigliere Ernie Adams is known throughout the Patriots organization as having a near perfect ability to recall football situations and strategy from decades ago. But even though it’s been a few seasons – New England hadn’t faced off against Peyton Manning since Nov. 21, 2010 -- it probably didn’t take a reminder from Adams for Belichick to recall the best way to defeat Manning.
Even though Manning had a Bronco on the side of his helmet instead of a horseshoe, the plan to beat him was the same as it was: Do whatever you have to do to keep him off the field. Run the ball, control the tempo, put together extended drives and keep No. 18 cooling his heels on the sidelines.
On Sunday, the Patriots executed the game plan to perfection for the better part of three-plus quarters before hanging on at the end for a 31-21 win over Denver (click here for the full recap). New England ground down the Broncos as Tom Brady steered the Patriots to a 31-7 lead, and while they had to sweat it out down the stretch -- Rob Ninkovich forced a Willis McGahee fumble to clinch things with just under four minutes left -- it was enough to come away with the win.
“That was a good win out there today,” Belichick said. “I’m really proud of our football team. I though those guys did a good job. We did a lot of good things.”
In the end, it was the sort of performance you might see out of the 2004 Patriots and Clock-Killin’ Corey Dillon: The Patriots held a 36-24 edge in time of possession. They set a franchise record with an astounding 35 first downs, and they were 11-for-17 on converting third-down opportunities. They had scoring drives of 12 and 14 plays, and two that went 16 plays. They rushed for 251 yards, sparked by a career-best 151 yards from running back Stevan Ridley. And they did it all while running no-huddle almost 50 percent of the time.
“We just kind of mixed it up and were able to run the ball effectively and then get some passes in there and do some things there. We were just able to move the ball and really get at a fast pace and a good tempo and it worked out for us,” said wide receiver Wes Welker, who had 13 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. “Any time you can control the game like that and keep on moving the ball and have positive plays and keep the possession, especially keep it away from Peyton and their offense, it’s good for us.”
Just as the defense set the tone the week before in the blowout of the Bills, this one was dictated by an overwhelming offensive effort that featured contributions from all areas. Brady wasn’t overly sharp, but he was flat-out surgical in the first half -- over the first two quarters, he was 17-for-20 for 165 yards and a touchdown. (He finished 23-for-31 for 223 yards and a touchdown.) And Ridley and Welker combined to keep the chains moving.
And while Manning and the Broncos nearly shot their way back into it -- thanks in large part to an odd decision by the Patriots to go for it on fourth-and-5 late in the game, a decision that nearly backfired badly -- it was a complete team effort for New England that was the difference in this one.
“They certainly did a good job of staying on the field,” Manning said of the New England offense. “They had to have won the number of possessions, at least in the first half it seems like. They did a good job converting on third down and minimized our possessions.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
THE PATRIOTS HAVE HIT ON SOMETHING WITH STEVAN RIDLEY
The running back had another stellar outing on Sunday afternoon against the Broncos, rushing for a career-best 151 yards on 28 carries -- the highest single-game rushing yardage total by a Patriot since Dec. 23, 2007, when Laurence Maroney had 156 yards on 14 carries.
By his own admission, it didn’t end the way he wanted to -- he fumbled on his last carry of the game as the Patriots were trying to close out the Broncos as part of their four-minute offense. But overall, Ridley produced another impressive effort in his second straight week of topping the 100-yard mark: He averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was at his best on a scoring sequence midway through the third quarter when he accounted for 33 of the 80 yards on a New England scoring drive. Then, after Denver fumbled the first play of its ensuing series, he took it in from eight yards out for the touchdown that would make it 31-7.
Ridley has a total of 490 rushing yards through five games this season, recording the highest total for a Patriots running back through the season’s first five games since Dillon had 522 yards through the first five games of the 2004 season. Ridley was part of a running game that produced 251 yards on the ground, with Brandon Bolden (14 carries, 54 yards) and Danny Woodhead (7 carries, 47 yards) working well in a complementary effort.
“It’s awesome, man,” Ridley said when asked about the running backs compiling back-to-back 200-plus-yard games. “I just have to say, it takes a lot of pressure off Brady. And that’s our leader, that’s our team. A lot of people key on him and our running back group has to get some pressure off him so he can be the quarterback he can be. If they’re sitting back there staring Brady in the face every play, we can’t be a one-dimensional offense. So we’re taking pride in that and we’re thankful for it, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
“There’s no question that really helps the way we’re playing offensively when we’re able to run the football like we’re doing,” Brady said. “You just can’t drop back and throw it 60 times every game. You have to be balanced, and I think we’re doing a very good job of when we’re calling the runs, we’re executing them. We’re gaining some significant yards per attempt. I hope we keep it up.”
THE LITTLE GUYS SHOULD BEWARE
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots faced a defensive unit that featured plenty of nickel and dime coverage, and like last week, New England took advantage. The Patriots ran for 251 yards as a team, with Ridley going over the century mark for the second consecutive week and Brandon Bolden (14 carries, 54 yards) and Danny Woodhead (seven carries, 47 yards) chipping in nicely.
“We’re getting a lot of nickel defense -- when they put little guys out there, we have to take advantage of it,” Brady said. “I think we’re playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We have to keep doing it. It’s only been five games; we still have a lot of football games left. We have to be at our best.”
As was the case against the Bills, there were times where the Patriots running game was targeting defensive backs, looking to run right at them. (There was one remarkable play when New England was able to pick up a first down on a third-and-17 as Danny Woodhead picked up 19 yards on the ground.) Denver coach John Fox said that one of the reasons the Patriots have had success running the ball as of late is because they know how to utilize positive matchups, particularly when it comes to the tight ends.
“They do a good job, because they have some tough matchups with those tight ends,” Fox said. “And you know, some people chose -- and we did early, [and] kind of adjusted as it went -- to put more athletic, smaller people out there to defend them because they do spread it out pretty good. So, it’s matchups, and once you get the little guys out there, it’s a little more inviting to run against.”
REMARKABLY, WES WELKER STILL SEES SINGLE COVERAGE
The slot receiver, who spent much of his afternoon matched up against Denver corner Chris Harris, had another banner day, coming away with 13 catches (on 15 targets) for 104 yards and a touchdown. It marked the third straight game in which Welker topped over 100 receiving yards -- Randy Moss set the franchise record with seven straight games in 2007 -- and it was his 15th career 10-plus-catch game.
While the running game should get the bulk of the praise for its ability to keep the chains moving, gobble up the clock and keep Manning on the sidelines, there were plenty of short passes mixed in to keep the Denver defense honest. And no one was bigger in that regard than Welker, who consistently worked underneath, finding open spaces between the linebackers and secondary. While his longest reception was 15 yards, nine of his 13 catches went for either a first down or a touchdown.
“I think every week you kind of go into it trying to understand your opponent and know who you’re going against and try to attack it the best you can and win at all costs,” Welker said when asked about feeling good about some of the matchups. “There were a few times where I didn’t get open, but for the most part I feel like I got open a lot and was able to make some plays and do some good things out there.”
He was at his best on New England’s second series from scrimmage, a sequence that opened with a 15-yard catch by Welker when he got popped hard by a Denver defender shortly after making the catch but stayed on his feet to pick up an extra five yards. On that same series -- a 12-play, 84-yard drive when Welker accounted for 40 of the yards himself -- he was the one who hit pay dirt when he connected with Brady on an 8-yard pass to the left that gave New England an early lead.
“That dude is fast,” Broncos middle linebacker Joe Mays said. “He is definitely one of the best slot men in the game, if not the best. What can I say? The dude definitely made plays and we didn’t.”
“He’s a bad dude,” Denver free safety Rahim Moore said of Welker.
Through five games, Welker has 52 targets, which makes him the Patriots' most-targeted pass-catcher. (Brandon Lloyd is second with 43 targets.) Despite the fact that he leads the team in targets, he’s not surprised when he’s left alone in single coverage -- like he was frequently on Sunday.
“I think it’s tough to do with us, just because we have Brandon Lloyd, we have [Rob Gronkowski], we have Deion [Branch], and we have the running game,” Welker said. “There are so many options, so many things to think about that it’s hard to say that they’re going to do that, and if they do, we have a lot of other options.”
NO-HUDDLE? NO SURPRISE
The Patriots were in the no-huddle for 44 of their 89 plays from scrimmage on the afternoon -- at 49 percent, it was a season-high for the New England offense. The Patriots leaned on it heavily in the first half, when they went no-huddle on 33 of their 45 plays, including 22 in the second quarter (when New England had 10 points).
Of course, it’s no surprise when you consider the fact that the Patriots went no-huddle on 52 percent of their plays from scrimmage in their postseason win over the Broncos in last year’s divisional playoff matchup, tying a high for the 2011 team. When it comes to the Denver defense, there’s clearly something there that New England can exploit.
“I think that’s more of what we’re doing as opposed to what they’re doing defensively -- we’re just trying to put a lot of pressure on those guys to get their calls in and line up and play against us,” said Brady, who engineered a 12-play scoring drive in the first quarter that had eight plays from scrimmage in the no-huddle and a second-quarter drive that went 14 plays, with 10 of them in no-huddle.
“We’re running the ball against some very advantageous looks and we’re throwing the ball against some advantageous looks, and I think the important part is to be able to do both,” Brady added. “You can’t just throw it all day. You can’t run it all day. You have to be able to do both. It’s been pretty good the last few weeks.”
“It takes a lot of concentration,” Gronkowski said. “It takes a team effort for sure. You’ve got to have all 11 guys working at the same pace and you’ve got to make sure you’re doing your own job out there. You’ve just got to focus during the week and you’ve got to focus at practice, so when it comes to game time I’m out there myself personally doing what I have to do and we’re all working as a team.”
IN THE BATTLE OF THE THREE-AND-OUTS, THE PATRIOTS ARE THE CHAMPS
As our pal Nuggetpalooza reminded us before the game, the Patriots came into Sunday’s contest with only three three-and-outs through the first four games of the season, the fewest total in the league. Meanwhile, the Broncos defense had forced its opponents into 15 three-and-outs in the same stretch, the most in the league.
But on Sunday, it was New England that won that battle. One of the reasons the Patriots were able to control the tempo and impose their will on the Broncos was because they were able to avoid three-and-outs and stay on the field for extended stretches, wearing down the Denver defense and stringing together lengthy drives. In the end, the Patriots had just one three-and-out on the day -- on their first series of the second half.
“One of the things that was going to be important in this game, because they are so good on third down, was third down, and we didn’t get that done,” Fox said. “I think they were 70 percent, and that’s how you possess the ball and keep it away from a team that has a good offense as well. Defensively, that was an area where we fell short.”
THE PASS DEFENSE HAD PROBLEMS WITH PEYTON
Whether it was because the Patriots pass defense was without rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Steve Gregory, the unit was facing Manning (and he and Belichick had run out of ways to surprise each other) or it was the result of the occasionally transcendent abilities of Demaryius Thomas, New England struggled a lot in pass coverage.
Even though Manning made it fairly evident early on that the Broncos were thinking pass first -- Denver finished with just 20 runs and 44 pass attempts -- New England's linebackers and defensive backs had issues working against the Broncos pass-catchers. While some others managed nice catches here and there, it was Thomas who bedeviled the New England defenders all afternoon. He ended up matched up frequently with Devin McCourty, but still managed to come away with nine catches (on 11 targets) for 188 yards, easily the highest totals of any opposing pass-catcher has had against the Patriots this season.
(For what it’s worth, it was not a good afternoon for McCourty. He was flagged for a pass interference call that set up Denver’s first touchdown of the game at the start of the second quarter, yielded a touchdown pass on a nifty catch by Eric Decker in the third quarter, and allowed a big fourth-quarter pass play to Thomas that got the Broncos into the New England red zone. At first glance -- and we’ll have to go back and rewatch the game to be sure -- it might be his roughest game of the season.)
Thomas’ longest play from scrimmage also featured the finest defensive play against him all afternoon. On Denver’s first drive of the afternoon, he was able to get behind the pass defense and make a nice grab down the New England sideline for a 43-yard reception. However, as he was on his way to the end zone, Sterling Moore reached in and poked the ball away, forced the first turnover of the afternoon and making the catch a moot point.
One defensive back who did show up mostly positively was rookie Alfonzo Dennard, who saw his first action after going inactive for the first four contests. The first-year corner out of Nebraska made his first appearance on the field in the first half and had a nice pass defensed on a third-down play for Denver that led to a Broncos punt. He added a tackle on the afternoon.
“I felt pretty good. I was a little nervous out there -- [I have] got a few mistakes [I’ve] got to fix,” Dennard said. “The coaches told me to just go out there and compete at practice, and we’ll see from there.”
FOR THE DEFENSE, THE TURNOVERS KEEP COMING
A New England team that entered Sunday’s game against the Broncos at a hearty plus-eight when it came to takeaways did another great job at getting its hands on the ball against Denver. After forcing six turnovers last week against the Bills, the Patriots were able to come away with three fumbles against the Broncos, with linebacker Rob Ninkovich coming away with a pair of forced fumbles and cornerback Sterling Moore adding one of his own.
Moore’s provided an early swing in momentum: On Denver’s first series, Manning delivered a rocket downfield to Thomas (a play on which Moore was beaten in coverage), who got into the New England red zone before the cornerback reached in and punched the ball loose. But the two from Ninkovich were bigger, with both coming in the second half.
The first came with five minutes left in the third, with Denver at its own 20. That’s when Ninkovich sacked Manning, knocking the ball loose for Vince Wilfork to recover. After a pair of penalties, the Patriots cashed in on an 8-yard run from Ridley to make it 31-7. The second was with 3:48 left in regulation and New England clinging to a 31-21 lead. With the Broncos on the New England 14, Ninkovich hit Willie McGahee, knocking the ball loose and giving the Patriots possession.
“We work on that every single week and talk about it every day,” Belichick said when asked about Ninkovich’s two forced fumbles. “I thought putting pressure on the ball and getting it out, Rob kind of had the same play last week in the Buffalo game where he came from behind and knocked the ball out. They recovered it, but this time we got it and Vince made the play. The same thing on Willis McGahee’s run. He’s able to not only make the tackle -- but we’re always aware of the ball, like they were when they stripped one out on us. It’s just good defensive football, just being alert.”
“It’s all about playing football,” Ninkovich said when asked about being able to take risks when looking for turnovers. “Not thinking about it -- just everything happens so fast and it’s just a part of playing football and learning things you have throughout your whole life and career of, ‘You see a ball, just try and get it out.’ I think we have a great group of guys that are able to make those plays on the fly, which is hard to find.”
THE PATRIOTS AREN’T AFRAID TO FLIP-FLOP THEIR ENDS
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots flipped their defensive ends. Chandler Jones, who spent the bulk of the first three weeks at right defensive end, flipped on Sunday with Ninkovich. With the two having such a radically different body type (Jones is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds with long arms and a lean body, while Ninkovich is 6-foot-2, 250 with a shorter, more physical approach), it can play havoc with tackles when they have to switch back-and-forth between the two ends.
“He’s 6-foot-10 or whatever and his arms can reach forever,” Ninkovich said. “We’re two different type of players -- I’m 6-foot-2, he’s 6-foot-6. I’m just completely opposite. He’s just a different style of player. Obviously, being able to, ‘Hey, I’m going against Chandler Jones. I’m going against Rob.’ It’s two different types of players you have to change and adjust your set to.”
For Ninkovich, it was the second consecutive week when he was one of the best defensive players on the field. He ended up with four tackles (two solo), one sack for six yards and two forced fumbles. In his last two games, he has 10 tackles, three forced fumbles and a pair of sacks in his last two games. Quite a change from his rocky start.
“I just feel that the first couple of weeks, I took it personally, some of the things that were going around about my style and how I was playing -- and obviously, that wasn’t the way I wanted to have my play be evaluated,” he said.
“I kind of went back when I was playing defensive end in college, I was kind of like a high-motor, keep going, never stop,” he added. “I’m not saying I wasn’t doing that early on. I just think that maybe I was thinking too much as far as run-pass instead of just beating the guy in front of me. Like I said, last week kind of changed my mentality toward things. I’m just going to go out there and do my job and beat the guy in front of me and things will happen for me. And that’s what I did.”
THE WEDNESDAY INJURY REPORT WILL BEAR WATCHING
While neither injury appeared overly dramatic at the time, both left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer did not finish Sunday's game. Mankins was relieved down the stretch by Donald Thomas after the team said Mankins sustained a calf injury -- he was spotted on the sidelines at the end of the game with a wrap on his left leg. Meanwhile, Vollmer gave way to Marcus Cannon in the fourth after he suffered what the team called a knee injury.
Mankins and Vollmer missed significant portions of the offseason because of injuries -- Mankins had offseason knee surgery because of an ACL issue, and he missed last week’s game against the Bills because of a hip injury, while Vollmer has been listed as limited in practice since the start of the season with a back injury, which he also dealt with last season. As a result, their situation bears watching as the team turns its attention to the Seahawks.
Other than that, it was mostly good news for the New England offensive line. Brady was sacked four times, but at least two of those were coverage sacks. The line was able to again work consistently when it came to run blocking, and Belichick praised the line's ability as a group to work seamlessly within the no-huddle offense.
“The backs, tight ends, receivers, they blocked well. But the offensive line did a good job,” Belichick said. “We played at a good tempo, played fast, and I think their conditioning and hard work all through practice, training camp and all that, to go out there and be able to not only block them, but play at a high tempo and play fast and do it with good conditioning and good technique and all, that was good.”
Said guard Dan Connolly: “As offensive linemen, we like to run the ball, and you have to run the ball to set up the passing game, and that whole thing. It’s working for us. We just start to get in a groove and things just start to work for us. I don’t know if it’s the play calling or it’s the blocking or what. But it just starts to work.”