Sunday, January 15, 2012

Patriots Dispatch Broncos 45-10

"Orange Crush" had a different meaning Saturday night; it's what happened to the Denver Broncos, not what they did to their opponent. The Patriots drubbed them, 45-10, and in winning earned a home game next week for the AFC Championship. They will play the Baltimore Ravens, a team that beat them in the playoffs two years ago, so they'll have their work cut out for them. Baltimore brings a great defense and a very good running game, running game to the contest, so next week won't be as easy as it was against the Broncos.

The Patriots put on a first-half offensive clinic. They scored 14 points in 5:15 on two drives to start the game and 14 more points in 1:34 to end the half. They added another touchdown in-between; and meanwhile, Denver's only scoring "drive" of the half was 25 yards after Brady's only interception. 35-7 at the half and that was your ballgame. The second half was just running out time and trying to stay healthy.

There are so many hosannas you can sing about the Patriots in a game that lopsided; but here are a few of the standouts:

The Offense

1. Tom Brady threw five touchdowns in the first half (and NFL playoff record) and six overall. His stats for the game: 26 of 34, 363 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 137.6 QB rating (no easy trick to get a rating that high when you have an interception in the game). He was in complete control from start to finish, and a big reason why the Patriots got a fast start -- unlike the past 14 weeks, when they started slowly.

2. Aaron Hernandez had 9 touches (5 rushes, 4 receptions) for 126 yards and a touchdown; quite the Swiss army knife performance, and vital in the running game that opened up long passes.

3. Rob Gronkowski still poses problems that no one seems to be able to solve. Everyone knows he's a main target near the end zone; but he somehow he got 3 touchdowns, including an otherworldly grab in the corner of the end zone. Oh... and he caught 10 passes for 145 yards -- another day at the office ::yawn!::

The Ravens will have to do a better job against Gronkowski. He now has 21 touchdowns this season, despite extra defenders and game plans designed to shut him down.

4. Deion Branch caught a 61-yard touchdown down the sideline and averaged 28.3 yards per reception. With defenses concentrating on the short game with Wes Welker (6 catches for 55 yards and a touchdown), Gronkowski, and Hernandez, the Patriots have to complete long passes to keep them honest.

5. Offensive linemen Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, and Nate Solder. Brady dropped back to pass 35 times, and he was hit only twice, sacked zero times, only had to scramble out of the pocket twice all night, and the Broncos produced just one tackle for a loss. That is amazing.

The Defense

1. Vince Wilfork (3 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits) and Kyle Love (3 tackles) clogged up the middle and forced Denver to bounce runs outside all day. Those plays didn't always go in the Patriots favor, but it was clear early on that there would be no running up the middle on Saturday.

2. Rob Ninkovich made up for a terrible first game against Denver; he shut down the edge this time and got 1.5 sacks and 2 QB hits of his own. He also forced a fumble; not a bad day at the office.

3. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were all over the field and did a fantastic job shutting down the Denver option-run. Multiple times, these guys threatened to tackle quarterback Tim Tebow, forcing him to pitch the ball, and then they got in position to stop the man he pitched it to. It was textbook, and is exactly what Denver will face if they don't diversify the offense for next year.

BTW, Spikes' stat line is impressive: 6 tackles, 1 sack (4 yards), 2 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defended, and 1 fumble recovery.

4. Kyle Arrington was their best defensive back on the day; played most of the snaps and had 10 tackles on defense, 1 on special teams, and a forced fumble.

Special Teams

1. Zotlan Mesko booted the ball twice and both ended up inside the 20 yard line with no return yards. Punters aren't usually football heroes, but when the Patriots need a big punt in a big spot, they have the man for the job.

The Coaching

1. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia killed it again. He's been with the Patriots for over 25 years, and with four of five starters back, he put together a great plan to keep the speed rushers away from Brady.

2. Defensive coordinator-in-waiting Matt Patricia executed a great game plan, making Tebow beat them with short passes and sustained drives -- two things he can't do yet.

The Bad

The running backs did not measure up to the success of the overall team. They ran the ball poorly (22 rushes for 77 yards, 3.5 yards per carry), and rookie back Stevan Ridley fumbled for the second straight game.

So where does that leave us? Patriots versus Ravens should be quite a game. No doubt the Pats will have revenge on their minds; Baltimore knocked them out of the playoffs two years ago, handing Belichick and Brady their first home playoff loss at Gillette Stadium. Watch for my update later in the week for a breakdown of factors going into the game.

Statistical Oddities of the Week: How strange was this game? Aaron Hernandez led the Patriots in rushing yards (61).  Denver lost 45-10 but led in time of possession (33:23 to 26:37).  And Tom Brady led all players in punting average (48.0).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe Tebow should be a two-way player -- they could have used him at defensive back."

Keep the faith,

- Scott


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