Patriots vs. Broncos: 5 Things We Learned in New England's 41-23 Win
They might have done that were it not for costly mistakes in the form of turnovers and penalties. Those are the types of mistakes a team can't afford to make when facing the Patriots.
Add to that a hot start by the Patriots offense, and New England was able to get a lead and build on it. An 18-point lead in the fourth quarter was enough to avoid Tebow time.
So what did we learn from Sunday's performance?
Patriots Offense Can Start Hot
After the Broncos stormed out to an early 6-0 lead, the Patriots were forced to do what they hadn't done at all recently: start hot.
A five-play, 80-yard drive spanning 2:19 game time ended on a beautiful 33-yard touchdown reception by Chad Ochocinco on a wide open deep route. It was his first as a Patriot.
New England kept the foot on the gas, scoring on five of their six drives in the first half (three touchdowns, two field goals) and two touchdowns on four second-half drives.
The Patriots Are Just as Porous Against the Run as the Pass
In the opening 9:59 of the game, the Patriots had given up 133 rushing yards and two touchdowns. According to Nuggetpalooza, the Patriots haven't given up two first-quarter rushing touchdowns since 1997.
The Patriots finished by giving up 252 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries for an 8.1 YPC average.
This is the second week in a row the Patriots have been gashed on the ground, after giving up 170 yards on 34 carries against the Redskins. The Patriots won't see an offense like the one they saw today in the playoffs, but they lacked gap discipline at times against Denver. That needs to be corrected regardless of the opponent.
Patriots Continue to Play Opportunistic, Capitalize on Turnovers
The Patriots may rank dead last in yardage, but they also rank fifth in the NFL in turnovers. It's been that opportunistic style of play that has defined the Patriots defense all season long.
In Denver's six-game winning streak, they turned the ball over just five times. On Sunday against the Patriots, they turned it over three times, all in the first half. Those turnovers proved key in the outcome, as the Patriots scored 13 points off three turnovers.
The Patriots are now 28-2 under Bill Belichick when getting three turnovers on defense.
But opportunities come in a variety of ways. The Broncos had an opportunity to force the Patriots to go three-and-out on the opening drive, but an illegal hands to the face gave up a first down on 3rd-and-24. The Broncos committed seven penalties for 39 yards on the day.
Stevan Ridley Is the Best Thing Going in New England's Backfield
The Patriots have four rushes of over 20 yards this season. Stevan Ridley has all four, and had one of those was against the Broncos. He picked up 65 yards on 11 carries (5.9 yards per carry).
The running game has struggled to get the ball moving over the past few weeks, but got it done today when called upon. The team as a unit rushed well, picking up 141 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries. Their 36 carries are a team high for the season.
Aaron Hernandez Can Step Up When Rob Gronkowski Is Taken Away
Rob Gronkowski has been unstoppable for the Patriots offense this season, but the Broncos took him away for most of the day. And with that, Aaron Hernandez stepped up big time.
Hernandez finished the day with nine receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots have taken some criticism for their inability to draft and develop talent at wide receiver, but you won't find anyone who will question them for taking both Hernandez and Gronkowski in the same draft. That decision has paid off beautifully for New England.
Side Note: Patriots Clinch AFC East Title
The Patriots were set to clinch the AFC East today with either a win or a Jets loss. They got both.
This is the Patriots' third straight season as the winner of their division, and the Patriots' nine straight 10-win seasons set a league record when they beat the Redskins last week.
With two games left on the schedule, the Patriots are now playing for a first-round bye and home-field advantage.