One man's Report Card from a win that slowed down the Tebow Express but really yielded no answers, unless you were wondering what Tebow would look like if he threw right-handed (maybe one of the six or seven all-time "Really, CBS?" moments -- and yes, Phil Simms did tell us that Tebow's throwing motion was similar to Tom Brady's. Kind of makes you reevaluate his criticism of Andrew Luck, no?) …
QUARTERBACK -- A-
Tom Brady during this six-game win streak: 1,890 yards passing, 15 touchdowns, one interception and passer ratings of 118.4, 109.2, 134.6, 114.9, 107.6 and 117.3. I'm sure Aaron Rodgers will win MVP -- though Drew Brees is making a helluva push -- but a case could easily be made for Brady. He's going to throw for over 5,000 yards and finish with 40 TD passes for a 13-3 team (probably) with the worst passing defense in the history of the league. There's Brady fatigue nationally and even a touch locally, but this is a great, great season. Plenty of QB's have won the MVP with lesser numbers and fewer wins. Brady completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday and was the Reason No. 1 for the win. An almost flawless performance from start (TD pass to Ochocinco on first drive) to finish (Brady was 11-of-13 for 149 yards in the second half and completed all five fourth-quarter throws). And I have no idea if Brady's elbow is still bothering him, or some offseason surgery awaits, but he is throwing the ball hard right now. Two stand out from Sunday: The Wes Welker second-quarter catch that was initially called a TD but overturned (correctly) and a third-down bullet to Tiquan Underwood in the third quarter. Both throws were serious fastballs and both were placed in a spot where only Brady's receivers could make the catch. The Patriots need Brady to be brilliant -- not very good, brilliant -- to win three playoff games. We know that. And with two weeks left in the regular season, he looks healthy and primed to perform at that level. Doesn't mean that'll happen, of course (we've seen that), but the most important player on this team is absolutely peaking when it matters most.
RUNNING BACKS -- B+
The Patriots finished with 141 yards on 36 carries (there's that balance we always point out: 36 carries, 34 passes) but six of those came on Brady sneaks, so in reality it was 139 yards on 30 carries for the backs (4.6 yards per carry). It was a fairly even distribution of carries between the three backs, as Stevan Ridley had 11 attempts, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 10 and Danny Woodhead with seven. Ridley again made the case for a bigger role in this offense, picking up 65 yards on his 11 rushes. His highlight was a superb 24-yard gainer in the third quarter, a nifty piece of running that saw the rookie pull off a spin move at the line of scrimmage before showing the burst that has been responsible for all four rushes of more than 20 yards by the Patriots this season. Woodhead had his first TD of the season in the third quarter via a 10-yard draw that had the Broncos totally fooled. Woodhead looked like he was losing his place in this offense a couple of weeks ago, but he was the team's best back last week in Washington and again was strong (40 yards on the seven carries) on Sunday. Green-Ellis did punch in a one-yard TD in the fourth quarter but was a non-factor, finishing with just 14 yards on his 10 carries.
RECEIVERS -- B+
Aaron Hernandez (career highs with nine catches, 129 yards) was Brady's main target, starting with a 46-yard reception on the Patriots opening drive that saw the tight end make Quinton Carter and Champ Bailey miss in the open field. Hernandez had the game's key catch, hauling in a 4th-and-1 pass from Brady (great, gutsy call from Bill O'Brien and a tremendous job by Brady to regain control after nearly falling after play-action) at the Denver 31 and taking it all the way to the Broncos 6. Huge spot there -- it was a 17-16 game at the time with 2:16 left in the first half. If Denver makes a stop they have the ball in decent field position with a shot at the lead at the half. Instead the Patriots convert, score a TD two plays later, add another field goal and go in the locker room with a 27-16 advantage. With Gronkowski, it's easy to forget just how good Hernandez is in only his second season, but he's 15th in the league with 68 catches and has been as productive as Welker and Gronkowski over the last month. Gronkowkski (four catches, 53 yards) saw plenty of double coverage on Sunday -- which helped Hernandez -- and was quiet until his 38-yard catch on the final TD drive. Wes Welker was also held to four catches, which makes Brady's performance even more impressive. Tiquan Underwood had the aforementioned third-down catch, and Chad Ochocinco was able to fulfill the last wishes of Kim Jong Il and score a touchdown. There were more of the communication issues with Ochocinco and Brady (Brady went off on him after a third-quarter mixup) and the 33-yard TD was his only catch.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A-
Von Miller was invisible, Elvis Dumervil was held largely in check (though he did deliver a wicked hit to Brady in the third quarter, looked like Brian Waters didn't get over in time to cover on the blitz), Brady was sacked twice but hit just three times in 36 pass attempts and the Patriots rushed for 141 yards. Terrific work all around for the line, with Logan Mankins -- who has had a shaky season -- as the clear standout. He was dominant in leading the rushing attack, opening a huge hole for Ridley on his 24-yard rush (nice block from Welker as well), taking Jason Hunter out of the play on Woodhead's TD rush (Woodhead ran right behind Mankins on the draw) and dropping Hunter on the Green-Ellis score. The Mankins we saw on Sunday is worth every dollar of that contract -- that was the guy who was the best lineman in NFL last season. Hadn't seen him in 2011 until Sunday.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- C-
First, the Andre Carter injury is a killer. Yup, I know the Patriots always seem to find a way to plug someone in when it seems that there should be no answer and it works out, but this is different. This isn't replacing Sterling Moore or Gary Guyton, Carter has been an elite pass rusher this season, the double-digit sack guy that has been missing around here for years. Monster loss. Mark Anderson -- another crucial addition this season -- was really quiet the last three weeks but was all over the field on Sunday, sacking Tebow twice. Anderson had four hits on Tebow and both forced and recovered a second-quarter fumble from the quarterback. His third-down sack in the third-quarter (with pressure from Gerard Warren) followed a second-down hit on Tebow. Brandon Deaderick nearly sacked Tebow in the end zone and managed to strip him of the ball, but Tebow recovered and was able to get an incomplete pass to avoid a safety. Vince Wilfork got to break out his version of Tebowing (which is already starting to feel tired, I've seen pictures of three of my friend's mothers Tebowing on Facebook, which tells us the shelf life is just about over and also means ESPN will only bang us over the head with it for another six months or so) but that was about it, as he was sealed out with some regularity in the first half. There was some pressure on Tebow -- four sacks -- and the last 40 minutes were a vast improvement, but this line has to take some accountability for 252 yards rushing.
LINEBACKERS -- D+
Rob Ninkovich had the 29-yard Garbage Time sack of Tebow, true, but he was horrendous in run coverage during a first quarter that saw the Broncos pick up 167 yards rushing. He was sealed out on both the 19-yard run by Willis McGahee and 25-yard rush by Jeremiah Johnson on the opening drive of the game, a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Tebow shrugging off Ninkovich and running in the end zone from eight yards out. Ninkovich and Tracy White (just isn't good enough to be a regular on an NFL defense, I think we've seen enough) were also out of position on Lance Ball's 32-yard TD rush in the first quarter -- White also whiffed on a potential tackle of Ball on his 34-yard fourth-quarter catch. Dane Fletcher had a hit on Ball on his fumble -- though it was Ron Brace with the force and Ninkovich with the recovery -- but he also was lost against the Denver rush in the first half.
SECONDARY -- C-
This team needs Patrick Chung. I'm not saying Chung is Ronnie Lott, but even if he's just an adequate NFL safety it's an upgrade over James Ihedigbo, who was a severe liability on Sunday. Ihedigbo missed a tackle on Ball on his TD rush, over-pursued on two McGahee rushes and failed to take down Tebow on an opening-drive carry. Matthew Slater and Nate Jones also were out of position several times each during the first-half TD drives, and Jones also failed when presented with the opportunity to tackle Ball during his fourth-quarter 33-yard reception. It's hard to determine how solid the pass coverage was against Tebow -- some throws weren't even close, he's the most inaccurate passer I've ever seen in the NFL, great athlete but not a quarterback, sorry -- but Kyle Arrington was beat by Demaryius Thomas on a few occasions, and Thomas was also able to get between Devin McCourty and Sergio Brown (late to help) for a 39-yard catch in the fourth quarter.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- A-
Quan Cosby had one of the dopiest turnovers you'll ever see at the end of the first half, fumbling a Zoltan Mesko punt at the New England 17 with six seconds left in the first half. There was no reason -- none -- for Cosby to be anywhere near the ball, the Broncos would have taken a knee and gone in the locker room. Not even sure why a returner was even back for the Broncos in that situation. Matthew Slater hit Cosby on the play, and Fletcher recovered the fumble. Mesko had three of his four punts downed inside the 20-yard line and Stephen Gostkowski made both field-goal attempts. Julian Edelman had a solo tackle on special teams and also made two Broncos miss on a 14-yard punt return in the second quarter.
COACHING -- B-
John Fox has been a good, solid NFL coach for a decade now -- and he's doing a swell job with this Denver team, not easy to adjust on the fly and he's done it -- but he failed the Grapefruits Test early in the second quarter. The Broncos ran for 167 yards in the first quarter, most ever in a quarter against a Belichick team. There was no reason to believe -- on a 4th-and-1 at the New England 8 -- that the Patriots could make a stop. A touchdown would put the Broncos ahead by a 20-7 score. Fox elected to take the ol' path of least resistance and kick the field goal. Gutless. In that spot the Broncos have to take a chance. That's coaching scared, at the very worst it's coaching overly conservative against an offense that is going to score 30-plus points. Different situation in the game, I understand, but contrast that decision with the Patriots throwing on fourth-and-inches in the second quarter. Just a different mentality.
Look, the 167 yards rushing and 218 total yards of offense in the first quarter happened and that's a hit on Belichick. No question. But the defense adjusted and didn't allow a point for nearly 35 minutes. And Bill O'Brien -- from the start -- had an outstanding game as a play-caller for Brady and the offense.