Broncos vs. Patriots: Takeaways from New England's 34-31 Win over Denver
What started for the New England Patriots as one of their worst halves of football in the past decade, ended with Tom Brady's greatest comeback win over his biggest rival and former favorite receiver.
Yes, things looked bleak after the Patriots' three turnovers in the first quarter and the 24-0 hole they sat in at halftime. But a focused and resilient team emerged from the locker room, and the offense, defense and special teams all contributed to 28 straight points, the lead and an eventual win.
It was a roller coaster of a win and moves New England back into control of the second overall seed in the AFC, just one game behind the Broncos with a tiebreaker over them in-hand.
This Patriots team might run hot and cold, but what's clear is when it's hot, it can beat anyone. At least in Foxborough.
More on that and the rest of the takeaways after the jump!
Believe It or Not, Ridley Fumbled Again
Stevan Ridley fumbled for the third straight game, and the fourth time this season. While returning after the last two fumbles against Pittsburgh and Carolina, this time he didn't see the field again.
And then LeGarrette Blount got in on the action, coughing up one of his own, and Brandon Bolden (13 carries, 58 yards, one TD) was thrust into the early down running back role.
Ridley remains the most talented Patriot running back, but will this last fumble be the one that broke the camel's back? The rest of the team seemed to deflate after Ridley's example, and how long can they continue to let him try to work it out?
Ridley is in a slump, and time could be running out for him.
Special Teams Are Special This Year
They don't get a lot of love, but it's time to finally give the Patriots special teams their due. They've been outstanding all year long, and they came through in the clutch against the Broncos.
Yes, Nate Ebner's recovery to set up the game-winning field goal will get plenty of press, but the special teams have been making solid, unnoticed plays all year long.
Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on field goals once again, and Ryan Allen put two of his six punts inside the Broncos' 20. The coverage teams prevented any big returns, while Julian Edelman ripped off a 20-yard punt return.
New England's special teams might be the best unit of them all, and they're finally getting some notice for it.
Where's Wes Welker?
Not re-signing Wes Welker was one of the biggest controversies of the offseason for the Patriots, but on this night, it's hard to argue they made the wrong move.
Welker (four catches, 31 yards) was effectively eliminated, mostly by Kyle Arrington, who had years of experience playing against Welker in practice.
Meanwhile, Welker's "replacement" Edelman (nine catches, 110 yards, two TDs) looked like the best wide receiver on the field.
Welker also had a front-row seat for Tony Carter's accidental touching of the football. That had to hurt.
Welker is still having a great season, and it's possible the Pats will have to deal with him again, but on this night, it was proof that the game and team are bigger than any one player.
Feast or Famine
Take away the self-inflicted wounds and it's tough to imagine what the final score might've looked like. The Patriots, especially on offense, are showing a penchant for inconsistency, with huge swings between looking hapless and looking unstoppable.
Against the Dolphins, the Pats were down 17-3 at halftime and fell into an early 10-0 hole to the Panthers. The Patriots have not started fast in three of the past four games, although they've eliminated the third-quarter problems that affected them early in the season.
If the Patriots can put together 60 full minutes of football, they will be extremely tough to beat. The last five games will be about trying to find that consistency.
Run Defense Struggles, but by Design?
The Patriots defense gave up a whopping 280 rushing yards in this one, and while we've picked on their run defense before, this game plan seemed to be OK allowing the Broncos to run. And it's hard to argue with the result.
Anytime Peyton Manning isn't throwing the ball, you're probably better off, and that seemed like the Pats' focus. Many of the runs came against the sub-defense, but the Pats stayed disciplined against the pass the entire game.
Manning was just 19-of-36 for 150 yards, two TDs and one INT for the game.
The early lead allowed the Broncos to shift to a more run-centric attack, and the weather certainly encouraged that. Their passing offense never got on track early, and perhaps that hurt them when they couldn't do anything for most of the second half.
The run defense remains a concern, but in a case of pick your poison, I'll pick Knowshon Moreno over Manning every Sunday.
Rookies Delivering on Defense
The defense as a whole played one of its most remarkable games of the season, and three rookies played big roles in it.
Jamie Collins started at nickel linebacker next to Dont'a Hightower and would finish third on the team with 10 tackles, six solo. We thought Bill Belichick would have a twist for Manning and Collins was it, playing both in coverage and blitzing. This was a promising performance from the second-round draft pick.
The selection of Duron Harmon in the third round of this year's draft surprised almost every pundit, but Harmon certainly looked like he belonged against the Broncos and was well worthy of that high a pick.
Harmon was second on the team with 11 tackles, a team-lead seven solo. In Steve Gregory's absence, Harmon has filled in well.
Finally, Logan Ryan made a clutch interception against Manning while seeing extensive playing time after Alfonzo Dennard couldn't keep going on his just-fixed knee. Ryan also picked up a pass defensed and four tackles.
All three rookies played big parts in the win over Denver and are adding a new element of athleticism to the Patriots defense.
Offense Finding Identity
With Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen finally healthy, we're just starting to see the 2013 offense Belichick and Josh McDaniels envisioned.
Without Welker, the Pats have returned to an offense where Brady's favorite receiver is the open one. With Gronkowski and Vereen, the Pats have two matchup problems for opponents.
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are making enough plays at the X-receiver spot to keep the defenses honest, while Edelman and Danny Amendola have both made some clutch plays in the past few weeks.
Each week, a different player is having a big game. That's a very good sign.
It's all starting to click for the Pats with their weapons, but the breakdowns continued early against the Broncos. The pass protection was suspect in the first half but locked down in the second, and Brady proceeded to light the Broncos defense up.
If the offense can just keep from turning the ball over and keep Brady protected, it'll be one of the best in the NFL.
Give It Up for the Defense
This Patriots defense deserves some respect. No one in the league has been hit harder than the Patriots have by injuries, but they've still overcome.
Chandler Jones (one sack, one TFL, three QB hurries) and Rob Ninkovich (team-leading 13 tackles) have been three-down stalwarts. Devin McCourty has played like an All-Pro on the back end, and the secondary has fought valiantly through injuries.
Dennard had surgery this week, and he still suited up and tried to go. Brandon Spikes battled through injuries of his own to be the only real run-stopping force the Pats had.
Dane Fletcher stepped up for Hightower in the second half and played out of his mind, winning praise from Cris Collinsworth on the TV broadcast.
They might not have held up well in the run game, but they forced three straight punts from Manning to end the game. That's something a Patriots defense hasn't come close to since the mid-2000s.
Despite the injuries, both season-ending and lingering, the Pats defense has shown it can stop anyone. If the Patriots can just heal up a bit, they should be primed for a playoff run.
The Pats Are 8-3
It was a dramatic game, with a lot of storylines, but all that really matters now is that the Pats have a three-game lead in the division, an inside track to a first-round bye and are within striking distance of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They're not a perfect team, and can be awfully inconsistent, but when they're on, they're nearly unbeatable. If they can grab the No. 1 seed, they'll have a good shot to get to the Super Bowl
Perhaps most impressive is the perseverance and toughness of the defense. They've lost both captains and a ton of talent. Many of them are banged up, but they keep fighting down to the end.
It will be the same no matter when or how their run ends this season.
The Patriots will go down swinging.