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The line: Big winners

With a little help from Wes Welker, Deion Branch was on air after his 61-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. With a little help from Wes Welker, Deion Branch was on air after his 61-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Greg A. Bedard
January 17, 2012
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When you put a beating on an opponent the size of the Patriots’ 45-10 drubbing of the Broncos in Saturday night’s divisional playoff game, you can almost be certain the winning team dominated the line of scrimmage.

Boy, did the Patriots ever.

The offensive line gave Tom Brady all day to throw. The five total quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries and knockdowns combined) were a season low. Not surprisingly, the previous low was set in the regular-season matchup with the Broncos even though Denver blitzed more (34.3 percent of dropbacks) than in the regular season (17.9).

Denver has no pass rush. It does a decent job against the run - the running game was the Patriots’ lone weak spot the entire game - but Denver can’t get any pressure.

If you don’t pressure Brady, you might as well not even show up, because he’s going to do what he did Saturday night: complete 76.5 percent of his passes for 363 yards (an amazing 10.7 yards per attempt) and six touchdowns.

As good as the Patriots’ offense was against the Broncos - it set a franchise playoff record for points and it had 509 total net yards - the defense, specifically the defensive line, was better.

Not sure what Pepper Johnson put in the water for the defensive line meeting room this week, but he should patent it.

The Patriots simply whipped the Broncos from start to finish up front. New England had 19 total quarterback pressures (five sacks). That total is third most this season, behind the first Dolphins game (22) and the loss to the Giants (21).

The 14 stuffed runs (1 yard or less outside of short yardage) far exceeded the season high of 10 against the Cowboys.

It started with the game plan.

What you saw was Bill Belichick at his best, with veteran players up front exposing a gimmicky offense with a subpar quarterback because they already faced the scheme and had an extra week to prepare.

How little did the Patriots think of Tim Tebow and the weapons at his disposal?

They played three of 72 snaps in a true nickel package (five defensive backs).

The Patriots dared the Broncos to throw. And they couldn’t.

That game plan was predicated on applying pressure - something the Steelers couldn’t do with an injured front in their wild-card loss - and the Patriots were obviously confident they could accomplish that.

Despite playing a 3-4 alignment, the linemen accounted for half the pressures (9.5).

Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Shaun Ellis, Brandon Deaderick and Gerard Warren completely dominated the Broncos’ interior of left guard Zane Beadles, center J.D. Walton, and right guard Russ Hochstein.

And when the Patriots’ linemen weren’t making the plays, they were making room for the linebackers - who were also turned loose - to attack downhill against the run and the pass.

The much younger and inexperienced Broncos didn’t know what to do. They obviously weren’t expecting the Patriots to play so aggressively.

They aren’t alone. It was by far the best performance by the Patriots’ front seven this season. One that was a long time in coming.

Here are the positional ratings for the Patriots against the Broncos:

Quarterback

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Brady was nearly perfect, which is what you expect when he’s not pressured. He only threw once at Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. Brady, once again, targeted the Broncos’ young safeties and unathletic linebackers. Brady had the interception, which was just a bad pass. On his first incompletion of the game, to Aaron Hernandez to start the third drive, Rob Gronkowski was wide open down the middle of the field. Chad Ochocinco, on his only snap of the day, had beaten man coverage as well. On the third possession, Brady had Hernandez underneath but threw high to Wes Welker as center Dan Connolly got shoved back by Broncos defensive end Ryan McBean for a hurry. On the touchdown just before halftime, linebacker D.J. Williams dropped into a deep safety position but was facing Welker. No problem, Brady just went to Gronkowski, who was running the same post route on the other side of the play for a 19-yard touchdown. You lean one way, Brady’s going to go the other. He does it constantly and the ability to watch a defense pick its poison - if Brady has the time - is what makes this offense so dangerous.

Running backs

Rating: 3 out of 5 Danny Woodhead looks like he’s back to the 2010 version of himself as his feel for the running lanes has been very good lately. The group had four broken tackles with BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading with two. It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with Stevan Ridley. He’s obviously the team’s most explosive back but was sent to the bench after his second fumble in as many games (one lost). The coaching staff puts a huge premium on ball security and since Green-Ellis has never fumbled, they might just go with the sure hand the rest of the way.

Receivers

Rating: 5 out of 5 This was Rob Gronkowski at his All-Pro finest. Not only did he have 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns - he looked like a man playing among boys - but he also had five standout blocks in the run game, even better than the offensive linemen. Gronkowski did let one blocker get by on a stuffed run, but nobody’s perfect. Gronkowski caught a pass on the opening drive, then threw the two key blocks on Aaron Hernandez’s 43-yard run. Of course, Gronkowski made two ridiculous catches. It’s almost unfair. Hernandez was just as good in the pass game, was solid in the run game, and keeps adding more to the offense’s weaponry. Now that he can play running back - we’ll see how much after he got his bell rung - the Patriots can go hurry-up, keep the same personnel and still have a running threat - with no backs on the field. The Patriots put Hernandez in six different techniques: running back (35.3 percent), slot tight end (19.6 percent), online tight end (19.6), slot receiver (13.7), receiver outside the numbers (7.8), and fullback (3.9). Hernandez was not in the traditional tight end spot on 80.4 percent of his snaps. You can bet the Ravens are trying to figure out how to defend that. Hard to believe that Welker, despite three standout catches, is just a footnote. But we have a feeling it won’t be that way for long.

Offensive line

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 This unit was outstanding in pass protection with good run blocking - not spectacular. Broncos rookie outside linebacker Von Miller had four of the pressures (three knockdowns) and 3.5 were against left tackle Matt Light, who still played well. End Elvis Dumervil reportedly is playing through a knee injury. He better be, because he was useless (zero pressures). Dumervil was blocked one-on-one 90.3 percent of the time - mostly by Nate Solder - and didn’t even threaten Brady. Brian Waters obviously got some rest on the bye week. After watching his play slide a little bit toward the end of the regular season, he was back to midseason form with zero pressures. The right side of the line pitched a shutout - pass and run. Logan Mankins (two half-pressures) didn’t look any worse for the wear coming off a knee injury. Dan Connolly was solid at center.

Defensive line

Rating: 5 out of 5 Wilfork’s encroachment penalty was the only negative play in this group. You wonder if Kyle Love was supposed to hold his gap longer on the Broncos’ touchdown run, but others had a chance to make the play as well. This group was outstanding. Wilfork’s technique that separates him from many tackles - the ability to get separation after being blocked at the point of attack - appears to be rubbing off on the youngest, Love and Brandon Deaderick. They appear to be mini-versions of Wilfork at times, just not nearly as consistent. Wilfork had three pressures and two stuffed runs. Love had 2.5 pressures and 1.5 stuffed runs. Deaderick had a combined 1.5 impact plays. Wily veterans Shaun Ellis (two pressures, stuffed run) and Gerard Warren (one each) provided some much-needed strength. Wilfork blew up the third-and-2 play with 4:50 left in the third quarter, which left Jerod Mayo open to take Lance Ball down for a 1-yard loss.

Linebackers

Rating: 5 out of 5 This group accounted for 7.5 of the quarterback pressures and seven of the 14 stuffed runs. They didn’t seem to be too worried about the pass, which allowed them to turn it loose a bit. Rob Ninkovich was terrific. We actually gave him credit for another sack, giving him 2.5 and a team-leading four pressures. He added a stuffed run. Mark Anderson, playing standout up linebacker, had a solid game with 1.5 pressures and a stuffed run. Brandon Spikes appeared to guess wrong on two gaps, but otherwise was very good with a sack, tipped pass, knockdown, and 1.5 stuffed runs. Mayo accounted for four half-stuffed runs. One of the understated factors in this game was how Spikes’s physical play took tight end Daniel Fells (zero targets) completely out of the game. On the sack/fumble, Ninkovich made a nice stutter in front of rookie right tackle Orlando Franklin and then, once he got him off balance, went around for him for the strip sack. Safety Patrick Chung helped make the play with great coverage underneath receiver Matt Willis, who was playing for injured top receiver Eric Decker. That was Tebow’s first read. One of the big plays in the first half was the Broncos’ third-and-4 from their 11 with 11:56 left in the second quarter. The Broncos completely botched it. Demaryius Thomas didn’t seal Ninkovich - which allowed him to play both Tebow and Ball, the pitchman - and then Thomas also failed to block Mayo. Willis failed to block Chung, who played with good leverage, and the result was a 1-yard gain and a punt.

Mayo had a big tackle for a loss on the first drive of the second half, but give credit to Anderson and Spikes for that one. They walled up and didn’t leave Willis McGahee anywhere to run. Mayo cleaned it up.

Secondary

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Let’s be honest, there wasn’t a lot going on back there. Not with that pressure up front. And Tebow missed several open receivers because of the pressure. Three of the Patriots’ four missed tackles came out of this group, and both Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung (personal foul penalty) failed to contain one run each.

But there was a dramatic uptick in plays on the ball, which was a long time coming. Sterling Moore had two pass breakups, Kyle Arrington had one and another tight coverage, which McCourty added to as well.

Special teams

Rating: 5 out of 5 The Broncos have great specialists in Matt Prater (4.16 hang time on kickoffs) and Britton Colquitt (4.48 punts), yet Stephen Gostkowski (4.23) and Zoltan Mesko (4.64) won their individual battles handily. Mesko’s punt (4.75) that rolled out of bounds at the 5 in the second quarter was a huge play that swung field position and led to a touchdown after a defensive stop. For those scoring at home, Brady’s rolling punt was in the air for 3.19 seconds. The Broncos didn’t seem to factor in the wind in the open end of the stadium - their blocking was never set up correctly - but Patriots coach Scott O’Brien had his troops ready to pounce. And they did. Matthew Slater had two great tackles, and Sergio Brown - who continues to impress on coverage units - and Tracy White added one each.

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

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