After 10 weeks that have seen Brady struggle with accuracy and poor decisions, he uncorked a performance worthy of adulation in weather worthy of frostbite.
Following a terrifying opening half—which saw the Patriots fumble five times—the Patriots dug out of their 24-point halftime deficit and won the game with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal deep into overtime.
The 34-31 victory over the Denver Broncos (9-2) puts the Patriots (8-3) one game clear in the race for a first-round playoff bye.
Story To Watch
With Jerod Mayo out for the year, Patriots fans knew there would be moving parts at the linebacker position. Mayo was the only "do everything" linebacker on the team, the rest have roles—some bigger, some smaller—to fill.
What was shocking to me was the complete lack of playing time in the second half for Dont'a Hightower, who was replaced by Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins.
Mike Reiss from ESPN.com had Hightower's snap count at 33, Collins at 22 and Fletcher at 57.
Contributions from linebackers Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins, who haven’t been a big part of defensive plans prior to this point, stood out. Fletcher had played 68 total defensive snaps through the first nine games of the season and nearly matched the total on Sunday night, when he had a key forced fumble. Fletcher was thrust into action when linebacker Dont’a Hightower came out of the game late in the second quarter and didn’t play another snap the rest of the way. As for Collins, he was “active”, according to Bill Belichick.
It will be very interesting to see if that was a scheme adjustment, or if the coaches were disappointed in Hightower's play.
What Needs to Improve
What running back should start against Houston?
Five first-half fumbles—three lost—failed to sink the Patriots, but putting the ball on the ground is becoming a familiar sight for Stevan Ridley.
Ridley commented after the game about his ball-security issues.
For me, I think my team deserves better than what I'm doing out there and putting on the field. It's been consecutive weeks with putting the ball on the ground and, as a running back, you can't do that. I've said that multiple times. I work too hard to make the small mistakes and I keep setting myself back and setting this team back. The offense depends on me and to go out there and get the job done and when I put the ball on the ground they have no option but to take me out and it's sickening, honestly, I'm frustrated, but it's part of the game.
Add Shane Vereen's two drops—and another one last week against the Carolina Panthers—as well as LeGarrette Blount's fumble to the mix and you start to see a trend with the running backs on the roster. Patriots running back coach Ivan Fears certainly has plenty to talk about this week during practice.
2. Blocking Scheme
Tom Brady loves to use play action.
In order to make the play effective, you have to make your pass play look like a run play, even in your blocking scheme. I wrote about this attempt at deception last week following the Patriots loss to the Panthers.
Unfortunately, the Patriots offensive linemen haven't been able to consistently reach their assignments when pulling—part of the run deception—across their formation.
Athletic linemen on the Panthers and Broncos were able to harass Brady on multiple occasions before their blockers were able to get a hand on them.
Showing the pull is so important to drawing the linebackers up and creating space in the middle of the field.
They read run immediately and take false steps that lead to their doom. However, if the Patriots blockers—Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly especially have trouble—can't get there, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is going to need to get creative.
3. Interior Defensive Line Play
Whether Bill Belichick was employing a "Thurman Thomas strategy" or not, 280 rushing yards makes you take notice.
Nobody has mistaken Joe Vellano or Chris Jones for Vince Wilfork or Tommy Kelly. They are just too small.
Isaac Sopoaga has helped a little, but Patriots fans are just going to have to live with subpar play against the run inside. To cover up for that, Brandon Spikes is going to have to continue to play with his hair on fire. His ability to take on pulling guards is nothing short of remarkable.
After the Patriots, which AFC East team has the best chance at making the playoffs?
Geno Smith played like the rookie that he is and Ed Reed looked lost against his former team. After alternating wins and losses through ten weeks, the Jets now are on a two-game losing streak.
The Jets (5-6) face the Miami Dolphins next week.
Miami Dolphins vs Carolina Panthers
The Dolphins' season has continued to be an exercise in frustration. Surrendering a 16-3 lead to the streaking Panthers is just the latest in a long line of mishaps in Miami this year. Cam Newton proved to be the difference in the game, driving his Panthers for the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter for the second time in as many weeks.
The Dolphins (5-6) face the New York Jets on Sunday.
Buffalo Bills (Bye)
The Bills were able to gain ground while resting, as the rest of the AFC came back to them. At 4-7, they are only one game out of the AFC Wild Card race. They play the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday.
The Patriots hold a commanding three-game lead on the Jets and Dolphins and currently hold tiebreakers over each of them.
Barring disaster, the Patriots are a lock to win the division at this point. They are playing for a bye and home-field advantage from here on out.
There are a lot of question marks regarding the Patriots' injury situation right now. Clarification will come on Wednesday when the first injury report of the week gets released.
Right now, the most pressing injury is to right tackle Marcus Cannon.
If he is unable to go next Sunday, the Patriots will almost certainly have to bring in another offensive lineman, either from the practice squad or off the street.
Will Svitek filled in admirably for Cannon, but the Patriots need to have more than six healthy linemen available against the Texans.
Aaron Dobson saw only limited action and Dont'a Hightower was absent during the second half of the Broncos game. It isn't clear at this point whether they were injury or schematic issues.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com and the Patriots' official media site.