New England Patriots: Following Abysmal Start, Pats Impressive Against Denver

Drew BonifantAnalyst IIDecember 19, 2011

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots drops back to pass during the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Bears 13-10 in overtime. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Forget the first quarter for a second. That was an impressive win for the New England Patriots.

Once again, we were reminded, if we needed reminding, that this team's heart is in the right place. You can bank on its nerves. If a game comes down to will, few teams can beat the Patriots.

Tom Brady and that offense saw quickly that they'd have to be almost perfect early in the game. The demands were high, but New England outperformed them. Every time there was a point in the game where you got that knot in your stomach, that feeling that the cost of failure on a play would be a shift in momentum to the resilient Denver Broncos, the Patriots came through.

On the road, in front of a crazed Broncos crowd, in the Rocky Mountain atmosphere and up against one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league, the Patriots at last earned Brady's praise for playing a 60-minute game. Mental toughness was, and is, in ample supply.

Defense, however, is not. That first quarter? It did happen, and it's time to talk about it.

The Patriots almost nuked themselves right out of the gate, as Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, Jeremiah Johnson and Tebow gashed the Patriots at will. If there's such thing as an explosive ground attack, the Broncos had it against New England.

Denver's first 16 carries went for 167 yards. The Broncos did it all, running untouched to the outside, cruising through gaping holes in the interior line and, in Tebow's case, shaking off defenders and barreling through tackles for first downs.

The Broncos rode the first-quarter surge to an early lead and momentum. They went up 13-7 and had the ball 4th-and-1 at the Patriots' 9-yard line when John Fox went inexplicably conservative.

With a rolling boulder of a quarterback in Tebow and a running back corps impersonating Terrell Davis, getting a yard would be a cinch. In fact, the way New England was playing, the only question would be if it could stop Tebow, Ball or whomever before he reached the end zone.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Defensive end Mark Anderson #95 of the New England Patriots celebrates after sacking quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos (not pictured) in the third quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Instead, Fox called in Matt Prater for the chip shot, making it 16-7 Broncos instead of 20-7 or 21-7. It was the first mistake for Denver, and it wouldn't be the last. New England went touchdown-field goal-touchdown on the next three drives and never trailed again.

Fox's call kept New England in it early and enabled the Patriots to rally and overcome that start. And to the Patriots' credit, the defense rebounded, even after losing top rusher Andre Carter for (it was later revealed) the season.

Led by Mark Anderson (two sacks), the Patriots began to limit Tebow's running ability, forcing him to throw to keep up with Brady. Tebow kept pace early, but fell off in the second and third quarters.

For the game, the Patriots deserve a lot of credit. Bill Belichick and defensive coach Matt Patricia implemented more 3-4 looks in the second half to help contain Tebow and the Broncos running backs, and the scheme change worked.

The Patriots defensive players mimicked the offense in the second and third quarters, recognizing the opportunities for game-changing plays and coming through. It was an impressive improvement, and the win was the result.

For playoff hopes, however, there are more questions than there were before the game. Problems stopping the run, which only really surfaced in last week's win over Washington, blew apart the defense at the start of the game and introduced a scary element to this team.

We knew the Patriots couldn't stop the pass. But with the run defense so atrocious early, it was hard to fight the brutal honesty that it's December and the weak areas of this defense are growing, not reducing, as they have with New England teams that have gone deep in the postseason before.

But just as it's hard to overlook the bad of the first quarter, it's equally difficult to dismiss the positives in how this team recovered. The defense made plays and the offense came through on clutch drive after clutch drive to keep the Broncos from working their usual miracles.

Brady looked every bit his 117.3 rating. He had to be Tom Terrific today, and he was.

Maybe this win taught us nothing. Maybe it taught us a lot. After all, it's not exactly shocking with this team to conclude that it'll only go as far as Brady and the offense can take it.

The defense got exposed. Again. Ho hum.

But this team has the heart and poise of a champion. Even if you knew that already, you didn't mind hearing it again.