FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: (L-R) Aaron Hernandez #81, Tom Brady #12 and Deion Branch #84 of the New England Patriots celebrate after Branch caught a 61-yard touchdown reception from Brady in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Up until tonight, the Patriots hadn't played a complete 60 minutes of football all year. But against the Broncos in tonight's Divisional Playoff match-up, that completely changed.
In their dominating 45-10 victory over the Denver Broncos, the Patriots played full throttle from start to finish. The slow starts that not only plagued the Patriots in the last few games of the regular season, but also in the team's last two postseason losses were quickly forgotten: the Patriots scored touchdowns on their first two drives while jumping out to a 14-0 lead.
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense got things going quickly by starting off in the no-huddle. The Patriots' opening drive was jump-started by an Aaron Hernandez 43 yard run and capped off by Brady's first touchdown of the night: a seven yard throw over the middle to receiver Wes Welker.
While the Broncos managed to drive 34 yards on their opening possession, Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich came up with a big strip-sack of Tim Tebow that was recovered by Brandon Spikes. The Patriots then continued the no-huddle and scored on a seven play, 59 yard drive that was capped by a beautiful end zone grab from Rob Gronkowski.
A couple of drives later, the Patriots made a rare mistake, with Broncos safety Quinton Carter intercepting a throw over the middle from Brady to Gronkowski (looked like a miscommunication). The Broncos took the ball 24 yards in 4 plays, capping off the drive with a Willis McGahee touchdown run.
From that point on, it was all Patriots.
Defensively, the Patriots stayed true to the 3-4 defense. In fact, I really can't recall a situation in which they weren't in the 3-4. They shifted personnel, taking James Ihedigbo off the field in passing situations and replacing him with Sterling Moore (with Devin McCourty shifting to safety). The Patriots attacked the "pitch man" on every option play, brought constant pressure on Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow, and were seemingly making plays in the backfield every other play.
The Patriots turned their final three first half possessions into 21 points. With just over two minutes to play and up 21-7, the Patriots really began to pull away with a 61 yard Tom Brady to Deion Branch bomb down the left sideline. The play put the Patriots up 21-7, and was a picture perfect throw. It was a good moment for the Brady-Branch duo, and brought back memories of their dominance in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Surprisingly, the Patriots weren't even done in the first half at this point. After forcing a quick three and out, the offense marched straight down the field and scored another touchdown in just five plays. With just ten seconds to go in the half, Tom Brady delivered a strike to Rob Gronkowski for a 19 yard score. Gronkowski's touchdown tied a postseason record for touchdown catches in a game, and for Brady, broke a record for most touchdown throws in a half (5).
Up 35-7 at half, the Patriots quickly extinguished any hope of a Broncos comeback as the second half began.
Second half recap and a look ahead after the jump!
After forcing another three and out, the Patriots were given a short field and quickly took advantage. The drive took four plays and was capped off with a Brady-to-Hernandez 17 yard catch and run for the touchdown.
With the score 42-7, the final result was essentially in hand. But the Patriots continued their complete dominance, playing a complete 60 minutes of football.
Even when the Broncos began to drive, the Patriots defense stepped up. In total, the unit made 14 plays behind the line of scrimmage (the highest of any team all season). That's impressive - the Broncos are a power running team.
Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow was 9/26 throwing, and rarely had time to do anything. The Patriots' coverage down the field was outstanding, and Tebow didn't really have many opportunities to make plays. Rob Ninkovich had a huge day off the edge for the Patriots. He was constantly harassing Tebow, producing 1.5 sacks.
Speaking of Spikes and Chung, having those two healthy has been great for the Patriots' defense. Chung played all over the field, and Spikes was constantly making plays in the backfield, blowing up Broncos' linemen and getting to the ball carrier (also had a sack on college teammate Tim Tebow).
In reality, it's kind of hard to single out the performance of any defensive player because every level of the unit was dominant. You can't discount what they did because it was against the Broncos. The Broncos abused the Steelers' #1 defense just a week ago, and the Patriots were a unit that not only took away the big plays, but simply dominated each and every down.
Some quick stats: Patriots held the Broncos to 7/18 on third downs, sacked Tebow five times for 28 yards lost, and allowed the Broncos to gain just 3.5 yards per play. Impressive stuff.
On offense, it was pretty obvious that Tom Brady was a man on a mission. His final line: 26/34 for 363 yards and six touchdowns. That's good for a 137.6 quarterback rating. Rob Gronkowski caught 10 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns. Aaron Hernandez had four grabs for 55 yards and a touchdown, but also added 62 yards on five carries on the ground.
But the story of the day for the offense may have been the protection: Tom Brady wasn't sacked once and was only knocked down a couple of times. The play of the Patriots' offensive tackles, veteran Matt Light and rookie Nate Solder was superb, especially considering they were going against speedy pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Logan Mankins returned from a sprained MCL, played most of the game, and looked excellent. If the Patriots are going to make a run to the Super Bowl, the offensive line is going to be key.
Overall, getting a playoff win like this was satisfying on so many different levels. The Patriots were dominant, sent a message to the league, and finally got over their recent playoff issues.
And while the win certainly ends any arguments for Brady and Belichick's legacy being "tarnished," the road does not end here for New England. The Patriots are now on to the AFC Championship, and are one win away from their fifth Super Bowl appearance since 2001. Tomorrow, we'll further analyze New England's big win and look ahead to the team's potential AFC Championship opponent. For now, we'll sit back and enjoy the Pats big win.