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On Football

This time, defense was a hit, too

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 15, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - The judgment for this oft-talked about Patriots defense will come next Sunday when the AFC Championship game is settled at Gillette Stadium.

Let’s deal with what we do know:

That was one dominating defensive performance by the Patriots in their 45-10 victory over the Broncos last night.

The defense hadn’t played that well from start to finish since beating another lefthanded quarterback, Tyler Palko, and the Chiefs, 34-3, Nov. 12.

It doesn’t really matter that it was against a team that has struggled at times this season.

I don’t care if you’re playing Foxborough High, when you hold a team scoreless on normal possessions - the Broncos scored all 10 of their points off the Patriots’ two turnovers - that is a performance that should be heralded and celebrated.

The Patriots flew all over the field and, statistically, hit all their marks.

The Broncos only converted 39 percent of their third downs.

The Patriots held Denver to a season-low 252 total yards, and after it gained 252 on the ground during the first meeting, New England almost cut that in half to 144.

The Patriots tied a season high with five sacks, had 14 plays for losses of 54 yards, and three quarterback hits.

The Patriots were robust, and what was even better is that they took the field with a mentality that it was going to happen. That’s something we haven’t seen in some time. The Patriots knew they would shut down the Broncos, and they did it.

“It wasn’t even a confidence, just a mentality,’’ said safety James Ihedigbo. “We had a mentality that we were going to dominate the game and that’s what we did. Denver’s a great football team with great players on their team but we just knew that our mentality was just destroy, you know? Play more physical than them, play faster, ball, swarm tackle, and create turnovers. We executed that and did that tonight.’’

When was the last time you heard any member of a Patriots defense talk like that?

Maybe that’s the type of play that comes from the defense being whole - or at least as close as you can be after 18 grueling NFL weeks - for the first time in weeks.

Patrick Chung was flying around at safety making plays. Brandon Spikes was finally back in his rightful inside linebacker spot being physical and bringing an imposing presence this unit lacks outside the defensive line.

It’s just two spots, but what a difference it makes. You could tell the boys felt good getting the group back together.

“We just played sound football,’’ said end Shaun Ellis. “All of us played together, no matter who was in there everybody’s head was in the game and we stayed focused on our task and our assignment and we got it done. They made some plays, but we just wanted to put together a whole 60 minutes of football.’’

That they did, and it started within the first five minutes when, after the offense raced to a 7-0 lead, strongside linebacker Rob Ninkovich beat the right tackle, sacked Tim Tebow, and forced a fumble. The Patriots recovered, scored again, and basically never looked back.

That was quite a reversal of fortunes for Ninkovich, who was part of the problem when the Broncos rushed for 176 yards in the first quarter of the regular-season matchup.

“That was a good play just turning the momentum in our favor to get that 14-0 [lead],’’ Ninkovich said. “Whenever you can get a sack fumble and get a recovery, it’s a good play all the way around. So I’m happy I was able to do that and help the team.’’

The defensive performance started with the tackles, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, who both penetrated against the pass and stayed strong in the run.

“They played gap sound and gave us trouble in certain formations when we tried things,’’ said Broncos right guard Russ Hochstein, a former Patriot. “It was successful for them and they beat us.’’

Ninkovich was a rock on the outside, never losing containment, and finding an avenue to make plays: 1.5 sacks, a tackle for a loss and a key third-down stop.

“Phenomenal job,’’ Ihedigbo said of Ninkovich. “I mean, his versatility to be able to rush the passer and drop back into coverage, he did a great job spying Tebow in certain situations and going after him and making plays. A phenomenal player who did a great job tonight.’’

If you thought it felt like the Patriots knew how to shut the Broncos down from the opening kickoff, you weren’t alone.

“They did play a terrific game,’’ Broncos running back Willis McGahee said. “They had us figured out from the beginning to the end.’’

Now the question is, can the Patriots carry that over next week against the Texans or the Ravens.

That’s all that really matters.

Even the Patriots aren’t sure. What they do know is that, with all due respect to the Broncos, the Patriots will be getting a step up in competition.

“Who we’re going to play next week . . . we’re going to face a better team,’’ Ihedigbo said. “Without a doubt, we are going to face a better football team and we’ll find out who that is and prepare. But our mindset now is we’re on a train moving forward and we have one goal and the next team is just in the way of doing that.’’

The first stop on the Super Bowl express sure looked good. Actually, it could hardly have been better.

All we know is the Patriots defense is rolling forward with great confidence after a terrific performance.

Now, the next stop awaits.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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