The host Broncos were clearly in the Christmas spirit today, as they were kind enough to gift wrap this victory for the Pats. Two fumbles, a muffed punt, and a missed extra point aided in contributing 14 points to the Patriots' cause...not to mention a bevy of holding penalties, both offensive and defensive...and a face mask penalty. Still, only the good teams take full advantage of such breaks, as the Patriots did today. Here are my grades:I. OFFENSE:
Balanced and explosive. After a semi slow start, the Patriots exploded in the second quarter, outscoring the Broncos 20-3 in that stanza...as the Broncos began bearing their gifts.1.) QB:
Aside from two misfires, one overthrown on a deep pattern in the closing seconds of the first half, and one underthrown short pass in the endzone, midway in the decisive second quarter, Tom was outstanding. He finished with 23 completions in 34 attempts, including two TDs, a rushing TD on a QB sneak, and, most importantly, threw no interceptions. Aside from the aforementioned two misfires, his accuracy and decision making was never better. Despite being without Deion Branch, and the fact that, by and large, the Broncos contained Wes Welker and TE Rob Gronkowski, the "Terrific One" still found a way to get it done. Some of Tom's highlights were a 33 yard rope for a TD to a wide open Chad Ochocinco, a 19 yard completion to Wes Welker over the middle...which set up a TD in the 2nd quarter, a 25 yard catch and run with Aaron Hernandez on a 4th and 1 second quarter play, and a 38 yard short pass and gallop by Gronk.
On the aforementioned 4th and one conversion to Hernandez, credit Brady for recognizing the Broncos' stacked defense, and for calling a time-out to reset the play. Credit Tom too for being one tough hombre. How he held onto the football when he was de-cleated by Elvis Dumervil early in the 4th quarter is beyond me. Also...credit him for a couple of rugged, head-first, QB sneaks...one to score a TD, one to pick up a first down, and a couple of others to run off some clock in the 4th quarter:GRADE: A;
Collectively, this was this unit's best game of the season...and most productive game overall, since the win over the Jets in Foxborough. Stevan Ridley finally ran today like he in the pre-season, finishing with 65 yards on 11 carries, including a 4th quarter 24 yard, tackle-breaking, sideline run. Danny Woodhead added 40 yards on 7 carries, including a 3rd quarter, water-bug like 10 yard burst on a draw play, to put the Pats up, 34-16, in the third quarter. BJGE had only 17 yards on 10 carries...but scored the Pats game clinching final TD, on a one yard run. Credit Bennie also with a 21 yard catch and run on a safety valve dump-off. In all, the Pats rushed for 141 yards on 36 carries. It was enough to keep the Broncos' defense honest for the majority of the game:GRADE: B+;
A missed assignment, seemingly by rookie RT Nate Solder nearly got Tom Brady killed. That, and a couple of uncomfortable moments involving center Ryan Wendell (holding penalty and a couple of adventuresome center exchanges with Brady in the 3rd quarter), were the negatives. Other than that, this may have been the most complete game played by this unit in a while. The Big Uglies gave the "Terrifc One" plenty of time to work his magic...and, for a change, actually opened up some running room for the RBs...particularly Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead. But...they can't ever allow a defender to get the kind of clean shot at Brady that Elvis Dumervil got.GRADE: B; 4.) TEs & WRs:
Usually, when discussing the TEs, their performance as a unit is either good or outstanding, with Rob Gronkowski getting the top billing. The performance of the TEs was outstanding again, but this time, the top billing goes to Aaron Hernandez. With the Broncos constantly double-teaming Gronk, Hernandez stepped up, and had his best game as a pro. He finished with 9 receptions for 129 yards, and a TD. His runs after catches were particularly outstanding, such as the above mentioned 25 yard fourth and one conversion, and on a 22 yard catch and run, which set up the final Pats' TD.
Though Gronk was held to just 4 catches for 53 yards, he came alive in the 4th quarter, and turned in a nifty 38 yard catch and run on the Pats' final scoring drive. Usual good job of blocking from Gronk as well, at the point of attack.
As for the WRs, though they only produced a combined six (6) receptions for 87 yards, one of those was the above mentioned 33 yard first quarter TD pass to Chad Ochocinco...one was the above mentioned 19 yarder to Wes Welker, setting up a TD, and another was 13 yard completion to Tiquan Underwood, to pick up a first down, and establish field position, on the Pats' initial drive of the 2nd half:GRADE: B+ ("A+" for the TEs, "C+" for the WRs);
After an horrendous first quarter, in which the Broncos gouged the Pats' front seven for 152 yards on the ground, the "D" settled down, and gave an all-around solid effort. But, going into prevent mode, and rushing just three, on a 3rd and 18 in the 4th quarter, almost allowed the Broncos to get back in the game.1.) DL:
First, the real bad news. The Pats' most dependable pass-rusher this season, and pro-bowl DE candidate, Andre Carter, went down with what was diagnosed as an injury to his left quad, that will likely require surgery to repair. This being the case, it appears that Carter is done for the season: http://www.nesn.com/2011/12/report-andre-carter-could-need-surgery-to-repair-quad-injury.html
After a first quarter in which the Broncos dominated the line of scrimmage, and rushed for 152 yards, the DL began making stops. In addition, the DL applied consistent pressure to QB Tim Tebow. DE Mark Anderson, who replaced Andre Carter, had his best game as a Patriot. Anderson had three tackles (all solos), including two sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Ron Brace also forced a fumble, and Gerard Warren, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick all made their presence known in the Denver backfield:GRADE: B;
Rob Ninkovick let Denver QB Tim Tebow get away from him, on the Broncos' initial score. He would later redeem himself by recording a 28 yard sack of Tebow late in the 4th quarter, and recovering a fumble in the second quarter, which set up a Patriots' go-ahead FG. Jerod Mayo, after a rocky first quarter, finished with a team high eight (8) tackles, seven (7) of which were solos:GRADE: B-;
Aside from allowing the Broncos to complete a 39 yard pass on a 3rd and 18 play, this unit acquitted itself pretty well against "The Tebows". As a group, they tackled fairly well, and were good enough in coverage to force several sacks by the DL. Aside from Demaryius Thomas (seven (7) receptions for 116 yards), the remaining Bronco receivers were held to a combined four (4) catches for 78 yards. Safeties James Ihedigbo and Sergio Brown each contributed six (6) tackles, five (5) of which were solos. Kyle Arrington added five (5) tackles, including three (3) solos. For the game, Tim Tebow completed just 11 of 22 passes, for 194 yards. In Denver...it's all about running the football: GRADE: B;
III. SPECIAL TEAMS:
Outstanding kick coverage, particularly by Matthew Slater, Dane Fletcher, and Julian Edelman. Fletcher recovered a muffed punt with three seconds remaining in the first half, setting up a Patriots' FG. Edelman averaged 7.7 yards on three (3) punt returns, including a 14 yarder just before half-time. Solid job, as usual, by the kickers. None of those annoying block in the back penalties:GRADE: B+;
Aside from the decision to rush just three, and play in prevent mode, on a 3rd and 18 midway through the fourth quarter, I have no complaints with the coaching, or play calling. But, that awful prevent defense decision nearly let the Broncos back in the game. Good adjustments after that awful first quarter to shut down the Denver running game. The Broncos only gained 100 yards on the ground during the final three quarters.
After seeing this game, it was obvious that the Pats' familiarity with playing in big games, and the poise and discipline of the BB coached team were too much for the Tebowites to overcome. Those two Denver fumbles and the muffed punt were too much for them to overcome...and seemed to drain their enthusiasms.
Horrible break losing Andre Carter for the season. But, with Baltimore and Houston losing, the Patriots are guaranteed a bye week in the opening round of the play-offs, if they can win their final games against Miami and Buffalo...both in Foxborough. A Pittsburgh loss Monday night in San Francisco would pave the way for the Pats to earn the top seed in the AFC:GRADE: B+;
V. PLAY OF THE GAME:
Leading 17-16, with 2:16 left in the first half, the Patriots were facing a 4th and one at the Denver 31 yard line. They chose to forego the FG opportunity, and went for the first down. Tom Brady stumbled as he took the snap, and had a Denver defender almost on top of him. Yet, Tom was able to get a flat pass off to Aaron Hernandez, who rumbled 25 yards, to the Denver 6 yard line. This play led to a TD, which increased the Pats' lead to 24-16. VI. PLAYER OF THE GAME:
Tom Brady. Though I'm tempted to give the nod to TE Aaron Hernandez, Brady's cool and poise under pressure was never more evident than it was today.
Here are the game stats: http://scores.espn.go.com/nfl/boxscore?gameId=311218007
As always, your comments and opinions are welcome.