|Undefeated Mirage Gives Way to Reality of Flawed Patriots Team in OT Loss to Broncos||Gronkowski Avoids Major Injury||Connelly’s Top Ten: Harper Drop, Officials Desperate to be Liked, Run Out Clock||There’s Hope for a Hanley Trade|
The New England Patriots (14-3) advanced to the AFC Championship on Saturday night, dominating Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 45-10 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Tom Brady led an unstoppable offensive attack, tossing for 363 yards with six touchdowns and one interceptions on 24-36 passing. Rob Gronkowski was a familiar target for Brady, hauling in 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
The Patriots jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, marching 80 yards on five plays to lead just 1:51 in the game. Wes Welker corralled a Brady offering and scored on a seven yard touchdown. After Tim Tebow lead the Broncos into New England territory on the subsequent possession, Rob Ninkovich stripped sacked Tebow to force the first turnover of the game and give the Patriots the ball at the New England 41.
Seven plays and 59 yards later, Gronkowski put the Patriots up 14-0 after hauling in a 10-yard strike with 7:43 left in the first.
After Denver converted on Brady’s interception to cut the lead to just 14-7, the Patriots outscored the Broncos 31-3 the rest of the way. Aaron Hernandez ended up 55 receiving yards and a touchdown on four receptions, while gaining 61 rushing yards on five carries. Deion Branch had Brady’s other touchdown on New England’s biggest play of the night, a 61-yard touchdown pass with only 1:57 remaining in the first half.
The New England defense played their best game of the season on Saturday, limiting the Denver attack to just 252 yards of total offense. Tebow passed for 136 with zero touchdowns on 9-26 passing, while only having a passer rating of 52.7 on the night.
Denver’s vaunted ground game was also stifled by Coach Bill Belichick’s swarming defense. Denver totaled 144 yards on the ground on 40 carries, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Willis McGahee led the Broncos’ offense with 74 yards on 17 carries.
New England forced 14 negative plays against the Denver offense.
New England’s offense was so effective because the team won the field position battle. The Patriots had scoring drives of 80, 59, 52, 72, 58, 44, and 78 yards. Tom Brady’s average field position on scoring drives was the New England 36.
Zoltan Mesko contributed to the field position battle, forcing a pair of fair catches inside the Denver 20, while even Brady had a pooch punt downed inside the 10 late in the game.
Brady had the best game of his post season career, and one of the best all time. The Michigan alum tied an NFL postseason record with six TD passes. He passed for 363 yards, and finished with a 76.5 completion percentage. Brady was only hit twice all night, and was not sacked once.
Gronkowski is an uncoverable threat in the red zone. The sophomore tight end hauled in a trio of touchdowns on 10 receptions, and was wide open on several big plays. The Arizona product was open in the middle of the field, in the flats, and on the sidelines to pressure the Denver secondary.
Ninkovich was Belichick’s most influential player on defense throughout the night. Ninkovich halted Denver’s initial drive with a sack fumble of Tebow, and finished the game with five tackles, 1.5 sacks, and an additional tackle for a loss.
In his postseason debut, Ridley dropped the ball both literally and figuratively. He had four carries which accumulated just 21 yards, and his third-quarter fumble surely put him in Belichick’s doghouse.
Red Zone Defense
So I’m grasping at straws here, granted, but if there is one area to work on this week, it’s the red zone defense. In Denver’s first appearance inside the New England 20, they converted it for their only touchdown of the game to cut the score to 14-7 early in the second. Willis McGahee plowed over Patriots’ defenders en route to a five-yard touchdown scamper.
New England played so well, it would be unfair to put anyone else here. As a result, I have to insert Tim Tebow. Tebow struggled to say the least, passing for 136 yard on 9-26 attempts and rushing for just 13 yards on five carries.
The Patriots return to action next Sunday, hosting the winner of Sunday’s AFC Divisional contest between the Houston Texans (11-6) and the Baltimore Ravens (12-4). The AFC Championship will be played at 3:00 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be on the call for CBS.