If any of you have answered yes to any of these questions then I have a bridge to sell you (or at the very least, some holy water). Because what went down in Foxboro on Saturday was a win so thorough, so complete, so exacting, that it almost belied the 45-10 final score. The Broncos were shellacked, lambasted, whipped and swarmed under by a healthy, rested and probably pissed off Pats squad that had to be loving the fact that hardly anyone in either the local or national media breathed a word about them all week long, likely in fear of being struck down by a bolt of lightning for having the temerity to spend one less minute talking about his excellency, Tim Tebow. Instead, the Pats simply came out and played their best, most complete game of the season, perhaps the best game they’ve played as a team since last season’s 45-3, early December, Monday night massacre. The Pats registered 509 yards of total offense while allowing their guests a measly 252 and forcing them into a whopping 14 negative plays. The offense, specifically Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, tied or set multiple records while the defense pushed around its overmatched counterparts with authority and severity. It was a borderline perfect game, a fine way to snap a three-game, post-season losing streak while also building up some momentum for Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, simple and to the point, just like the Pats blowout win itself.
Overall Grade: A
It seems like a waste of time or at least nitpicky to break the offense and defense down into position groups regarding this game. Everyone out there deserves a big fat A. Yes, Brady threw a bad, first quarter interception, but it was the only lousy throw he made all night out of 34. Sure, Stevan Ridley had a fumble in the third quarter after which he was banished for the rest of the evening. But the score was 42-7 and anyway, the Pats running game at this point is just a means to set up their passing game so Ridley’s miscue can pretty much be written off (although it bears watching, seeing as how he’s fumbled twice in his last two games, whether he gets much run against the Ravens on Sunday). Everything else concerning the offense was pure bliss, from Brady’s vintage, Hall of Fame-esque performance (26-of-34, 363 yards, a record-tying six TDs, five of which came in the first half, good for another record), to Gronk’s 10-catch, 145-yard, three-TD night (tying another record), to Aaron Hernandez’s 116 total yards, 61 of which came on the ground from the running back position, to Deion Branch’s exquisite, 61-yard TD catch and run on which he ran a sideline streak, got one step on his man and hauled in a perfectly thrown, front shoulder pass from Brady before scampering into the end zone (after which CBS’s Phil Simms said, “This may be the best I’ve ever seen Brady throw the football.”). The offensive line, which lost Logan Mankins in the second quarter (another scenario that will warrant close attention headed into Sunday) was pretty much flawless, keeping Brady completely clean save for two hits, shutting out Broncos pass rushing demons Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller and plowing the way for a five yard average on the ground on 30 rushing attempts. Matt Light and Nate Solder in particular were beyond outstanding, taking Denver’s only real threats on defense, the previously mentioned Miller and Dumervil, and rendering them both almost entirely obsolete. Cyborg Gronk must get even more props than he’s already received not just because of yet another other-worldly stat line (his first TD catch, a diving, juggling masterpiece) but because his ability as a blocker is almost as impressive as his ability as a receiver. And, not that we’re complaining, but how can he possibly continue to be so poorly covered in the red zone? On his third TD, he lined up in the slot, ran the same seam route he’s been running 10 times per game all season and was left alone in a dead spot in the Denver zone. Opposing defenses have no answer for him or for A-Herb (tight end/slot receiver/running back). And when you add Wes Welker, who submitted a typical, solid performance (six catches, 55 yards, one TD), it’s hard to imagine even a defense like Baltimore’s, which is not what it once was, making a dent. Of course, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. But it’s difficult not to surmise such possibilities after an offensive explosion like Saturday’s. Everything was so on point, the Pats even scored in the first quarter on their first possession, the first time that’s happened in their last 12 games. Every week is a different one. But this team, its offense in particular, looks pretty unstoppable right now. Can they keep it going for two more games? We’ll see, but all signs point to that being a great, big yes.
Overall Grade: A
Yep, you read that right. The defense gets an A, and the old head nearly exploded when typing out that grade. Once again, so we’re clear – 252 yards allowed, 14 negative plays. Other than a few runs by Willis McGahee on which he powered his way to some extra yardage after initial contact, the Denver offense was nowhere. While part of that is because the Broncos aren’t equipped to play from behind or to rely on the pass (situations in which they found themselves all night), take nothing away from the effort put forth by the Pats, who were completely and totally prepared for Denver’s rushing attack and played with an attitude all night. It started up front where Vince Wilfork, Mark Anderson and the rest of the Pats D-line were at least excellent and sometimes completely dominant all night long. They got plenty of push up there from the get-go, which allowed the linebacking corps of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich to have room to make plays up the middle and to the sidelines. Spikes, in his first full game back since suffering that strained MCL back in early November, was particularly excellent, with six tackles, two for a loss, a sack, a pass breakup, a couple of hits on Tebow and a fumble recovery. More than anything though, Spikes is a tone-setter. He plays with a fire and aggression that seems to filter through himself and onto his teammates. That attitude mentioned earlier came in large part from Spikes and Patrick Chung which makes a lot of sense given how fresh both of them must be after getting a prolonged break due to injuries. Chung had one of the defense’s only boneheaded moments, picking up a late hit penalty in the third quarter for clocking McGahee after he was clearly out of bounds. But his energy was palpable and contributed greatly to setting the tone. Wilfork was the best of the linemen, making life miserable for Tebow with a sack and a half and a couple more hits while looking as active as he has in weeks. And Mark Anderson and Ninkovich both played huge, Anderson because of his play against the run (not even remotely his strong suit) while getting all but one of the defensive reps and Ninkovich for routinely getting pressure on Tebow, rolling up a couple of sacks, forcing a fumble and looking as much like Mike Vrabel as he ever has in doing so. All of this made for a quiet night in the secondary and there’s never anything wrong with that. Even Devin McCourty, who saw time at safety again, needn’t be picked on, not when the opposing QB goes 9-of-26 for 136 yards, posts a 52.7 passer rating and gets sacked five times (one of which even came from Shaun Ellis of all people!). This was the game we’ve been waiting to see if this defense was capable of playing all year. It is. Now, let’s see it repeat its delivery against a team that has a more proficient, professional looking offense. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco is better than Tebow, but he’s not at all great and his receivers good but not stars. The jury is still out. But there has to be so much more confidence engendered from Saturday night’s performance, both on the part of the players and the fans. Suddenly, the idea of this defense needing to play an important role if the Pats are to advance to the Super Bowl is far less daunting.
SPECIAL TEAMS/COACHING/EVERYTHING ELSE
Overall Grade: A
Not much to report by way of special teams other than Brady giving our man Zoltan a run for his money as the punter. And the crowd, which figured to be somewhat subdued given the brutally cold conditions, was in full throat and very impressive. So let’s devote the majority of this section to the coaching, which was a slam dunk. The Patriots had a major problem handling the Broncos rushing attack back in Week 15 so they fixed what ailed them in that regard and held Denver to just 3.6 yards in 40 attempts. New ways were found to make plays on offense as witnessed by Hernandez’s multiple reps coming out of the backfield. And the focus was impeccable right from the start. Bill Belichick, who tied Chuck Noll for fourth place on the all-time post-season wins list with his 16th, dialed up every single right number in this one and also managed to make his counterpart, Denver’s John Fox, look like a fool in the process. Whether it was letting Gronk go either uncovered or one-on-one with a safety who’s half his size in the red zone or kicking a field goal down by five TDs in the third quarter, Fox had no chance. But lots of folks don’t against Belichick, who couldn’t be touched in this one. Maybe it was Josh McDaniels insider knowledge of the inner workings of the Broncos (which, by the way, will likely no longer be allowed by the league starting next year probably at least somewhat due to all the whining and crying coming out of the Denver media last week). Maybe it was Bill O’Brien wanting to go out on top before he begins his attempt to restore the Penn State football program. Or maybe it was the mere fact that Belichick is one of, if not the, best coaches of all time, even now after all the personnel shortcomings and recent playoff failures. It’s hard to imagine any Pats fan preferring anyone else.