DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Tight end Aaron Hernandez #81 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against strong safety Chris Harris #25 of the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
But at that point, Tom Brady and the Patriots offense got on a roll that couldn't be stopped, and the New England defense became opportunistic, creating pressure and getting turnovers.
The Patriots would go on to score 34 of the game's final 41 points, as they cruised to a 41-23 victory. Although Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow was able to lead one fourth quarter scoring drive, Tom Brady and the Patriots offense kept him off the field and punched the ball into the end zone when it mattered most.
So despite that frustrating start, the Patriots are now 11-3 and for the third straight season are AFC East Champions. With the Texans dropping to 10-4 after a loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots are also in the driver's seat for a first round bye as well.
Game notes after the jump.
- Heading into the game, I thought the Patriots would be able to stop the Broncos' inside run game. In the first quarter, that was not the case. The Broncos gashed the Patriots' run defense, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage nearly every snap.
- The knee injury to Patriots' defensive end Andre Carter appears to be a serious one. It's unfortunate, for a player who was performing at such a high level for New England this year. Hopefully, it's not as serious as it looks. (UPDATE: Appears to be a quad injury that will require surgery. Don't want to speak too soon, but it looks like Carter could be done for the year).
- If there was a bright spot to Andre Carter going down with injury, it was that the Patriots switched to the 3-4 base defense. With the 3-4 in place, the Patriots were a much more disciplined team, and they really stiffened against the run. Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich were the primary outside linebackers, and both really let loose and got after Tim Tebow. Anderson, in particular, shined as an outside linebacker, picking up two sacks on the day (his strip of Tim Tebow in the second quarter was also a turning point for the defense).
- The Patriots also benefited from strong defensive line play (after the horrid first quarter). In the 3-4, the Patriots were able to consistently rotate Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Shaun Ellis, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, and Ron Brace. All six defensive lineman were able to stay fresh, and make impact plays. Gerard Warren, in particular, made a few really nice plays out there. It was nice to see as he hasn't had as big of a role in 2011 as he did last year.
- Linebacker Jerod Mayo, fresh off his reported five year extension, had one of his best games of the year. Mayo led the team with eight tackles, but seemed to be the only defender playing at a high level when the Patriots struggled on the defensive side early.
- One last thing that concerned me defensively: missed tackles and bad angles. There were several occasions where the Patriots should have had a sack on Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, but just couldn't take him down. Safeties Sergio Brown and Matthew Slater also took some pretty inexcusable angles. Kyle Arrington also struggled in coverage for New England, and took an awful angle on an early Denver first down run.
- On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots were pretty solid and consistent throughout the day. They really showed that they can dictate the tempo of the game, control the clock, and seal the deal when it mattered most. The team's 9 play, 80 yard drive in the fourth quarter was a work of beauty, and sealed the deal.
- The Patriots did a good job of getting back to a balanced attack on offense, and had their best performance on the ground game in weeks. Danny Woodhead showed some burst, carrying the ball for 40 yards on seven carries. Rookie Stevan Ridley may have had his best game since week three against Buffalo. Ridley picked up 65 yards on 11 carries, with one particularly bruising 24 yard run.
- It was nice to see Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco get his first touchdown of the year on a 33 yard bomb down the left sideline from Tom Brady in the first quarter. While it was Ochocinco's only catch of the day, he deserves some credit for his downfield blocking, which showed up on several different plays.
- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a few off throws on the day, but got more and more accurate as the game went on. Brady was patient in the pocket all afternoon, and his play down the stretch was really great to watch. Tom is playing at a real high level right now, and should still be in MVP conversations.
- The Patriots MVP this afternoon was likely tight end Aaron Hernandez. The Broncos came out and made it their mission to shut down Rob Gronkowski, consistently giving him double and even triple teams. Consistently in one one one coverage, Aaron Hernandez made the most of the mismatches, coming up with career highs in yards (129) and catches (9). "Herndo" was prolific running routes and especially after the catch.
- Logan Mankins had a particularly ferocious game today at the left guard spot. Tough day though for Ryan Wendell, who got the start at center. Wendell had a mis-communication with Tom Brady on a snap and later got called for a holding penalty.