Two of the league’s hottest teams squared off Sunday amidst a number of intriguing storylines. The New England Patriots came in riding a five game winning streak, one win away from clinching the AFC East. The Denver Broncos had won six straight themselves, mostly in Disney-movie style, to jump top of the AFC West at 8-5. The game went against the fairy-tale script early as the Broncos pulled ahead 16-7 after dominating the early action behind 167 yards on the ground in the first quarter. Denver started to get careless with the ball though, as they lost three fumbles on the day, and the Patriots offense methodically took control of the game and scored the next 27 points to go up 34-16.
Of course the Broncos called upon some of their fourth quarter magic, but after they cut the deficit to 11, the Patriots did what the past six teams couldn’t, and shut the door with a nine play, 80 yard touchdown drive to seal the game at 41-23. The turnovers were too much to overcome, while the Patriots offense has too many weapons to defend, but the Broncos benefitted from an Oakland Raiders loss and still control their own destiny in the West. The Patriots took a huge step forward this weekend as they now sit alone atop the entire AFC and are staring a first round bye and No. 1 seed right in the face.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Best Florida Gator on the Field
See what I did there? The Patriots are re-writing the term “matchup nightmare” as their tight ends continue to dominate on a weekly basis. After weeks of singing the praises of TE Rob Gronkowski (and rightfully so), Sunday was TE Aaron Hernandez’ (+6.4) turn to shine. One of the favorite buzzwords in the NFL today is “versatility” and Hernandez fits the bill perfectly. He caught passes against seven different defenders, including at least one at each level of the defense. It started early at the 9:04 mark in the first quarter as Hernandez lined up in the slot and beat safety Quinton Carter on a 10 yard in route, shrugged off his tackle attempt, juked cornerback Champ Bailey, and picked up another 36 yards after the catch. From the traditional TE spot, Hernandez ran the quick out on 4th-and-1 with 2:16 to go in the second, and proceeded to turn the three yard pass into a 25 yard gain by running away from linebacker Wesley Woodyard. For good measure, the Patriots even gave him a handoff from a traditional running back position and he picked up 16 yards on the sweep play. For the game, Hernandez picked up 98 of his 129 yards after the catch and of his 73 total snaps, he played 19 at TE, 25 in the slot, 25 at WR, 2 at FB and 2 at HB. Hernandez made big plays all over the formation.
In a potentially devastating blow, the Patriots lost their best defensive player, DE Andre Carter, for the season early in the second quarter. Carter has been one of the best pass rushers on the team, while providing outstanding run support, but for this game at least, his replacement did a good job. DE Mark Anderson (+5.4) picked up the slack after Carter left, picking up two sacks and five pressures on only 23 pass rushes. His best play came when he forced a fumble on an attempted option pitch from quarterback Tim Tebow, then amazingly came out of the pile with the recovery at the 4:40 mark in the second quarter. Anderson’s second sack came on a beautifully executed stunt with 10:40 to go in the fourth quarter. Patriots DTs Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick did a great job of attacking the outside shoulders of the guards, while Anderson sold the outside move before looping around through the middle, right into an unsuspecting Tebow. The Patriots will look to Anderson, as well as LB Rob Ninkovich and DE Eric Moore to fill Carter’s shoes for the rest of the season.
Bad DBs Part I
Little is expected when a special teamer, listed as a wide receiver, lines up at free safety and little was returned in this game. FS Matt Slater (-1.4) lasted all of ten snaps before being pulled for backup FS Sergio Brown (-1.5). Slater was a part of the early gashing on the ground and certainly drew the ire of Head Coach Bill Belichick with his missed tackle on running back Jeremiah Johnson’s 25 yard gain with 11:20 to go in the first quarter. The final straw was RB Willis McGahee juking past him on a 29-yard run at the 7:18 mark and Slater was relegated to his usual special team role the rest of the game. Brown had little impact as Slater’s replacement. CB Kyle Arrington was targeted frequently by the Broncos, giving up six completions on the nine balls his way for 97 yards. Arrington has been the best coverage player in New England since Leigh Bodden went down, but it was not a good day over at RCB. The public perception that the Patriots’ weakest link is the back end of the defense, held true in this game.
Three Performances of Note – Denver Broncos
Bad DBs Part II
It’s almost expected that the Patriots opposing secondary will grade negatively, and this week was no different. Defending the Patriots pass offense usually starts with trying to stop Gronkowski and Wes Welker and that strategy was on display as WR Chad Ochocinco was left wide open on his first quarter touchdown. CB Andre Goodman (-3.8) was looking for safety help, but Quinton Carter (-2.0) doubled Welker in the slot instead leading to the easy score. Coverage was certainly an issue, but the tackling was even worse. The secondary missed seven tackles as a unit, led by CB Champ Bailey (-1.8) who missed three. For the game, the Patriots picked up 203 of their 320 passing yards after the catch, all due to the poor tackling or defenders being out of position.
Left Side, Not so Strong Side
The talk this week is going to be about the Patriots’ game plan that slowed down Tim Tebow and it all started with pressure up front. The Broncos offensive line did a poor job in pass protection, particularly on the left side. LT Ryan Clady (-2.2) was beat to the tune of seven pressures, while LG Zane Beadles (-1.6) surrendered a sack and four pressures. Now, very similar the Michael Vick’s situation with the Philadelphia Eagles, it may not be fair to evaluate the offensive line on numbers alone. Like Vick, Tebow tends to hold the ball for quite a while as he waits for plays to develop downfield and on a few plays, Tebow scrambled wildly with nowhere to go as the Patriots did a decent job of keeping him bottled up. There were still a number of plays where Clady got beaten right off the snap by Anderson and Moore so it was not a good day, as Tebow was pressured on 19 of his 32 dropbacks.
Let’s Talk Tebow
As I was assigned this game, it was pointed out to me that it was now my turn to analyze Tim Tebow (+1.2), so I’ll give it a shot. As the Broncos pounded the ball down the Patriots’ throats early in the game, you couldn’t help but notice the indecisiveness on the defense, particularly the linebackers. They looked extremely slow to react to the run, as if they were waiting for Tebow to keep the ball on every play. Such is the dilemma when facing a mobile quarterback and it’s a dimension to Tebow’s game that the Broncos have used well.
Then you have Tebow’s first rushing touchdown as he eludes the grasp of Ninkovich and muscles his way into the end zone. His skill set is certainly unique, but when it came down to it, he needed to make plays throwing the football. This is where we saw his usual inconsistencies, as there were balls thrown into the ground and balls thrown into the third row. But every now and then, Tebow would flash some very good accuracy. One throw that stood out occurred at the 9:39 mark of the fourth quarter, with the Broncos on the last hash mark and Tebow fired a rifle in between the cornerback and safety about 35 yards down the field. It’s common to see a quarterback stick a nice throw into the cover-2 zone, but it generally occurs about 20 yards downfield, not 35. Like most analysts, I haven’t been impressed with Tebow’s throwing of the football, but he appears to be improving every week and as long as teams have to respect him as a runner, he will have some open windows in which to throw.
– It was a terrible tackling display as the Patriots missed 13 tackles and the Broncos missed 11.
– The Broncos did a lot of their damage running to the right as they amassed 126 yards on 11 carries in that direction.
– QB Tom Brady was only pressured on six of his 36 dropbacks and the great LB Von Miller was held without a Sack, QB Hit or Pressure for the first time in his young career.
PFF Game Ball
With so much attention being given to Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez took advantage of every defender the Broncos threw at him.