In the end this game turned out almost exactly as I expected it to. The teams exchanged early touchdowns before the Patriots asserted control over the game for two quarters, and then the Broncos played a frenzied fourth quarter to close the gap to ten points and make the score respectable. And while the Broncos left some opportunities on the field Sunday, including two blunders by Willis McGahee, the game really wasn’t as close as it seemed at the end.
While Peyton Manning outdueled Tom Brady on the stat sheet, it was the Patriots’ dominance in the run game that once again stole the show for the Patriots. Stevan Ridley led the way with 151 yards on 20 carries, while the Patriots amassed 251 total rushing yards on the day and a team record 35 first downs. Brandon Bolden ran for 54 yards and Danny Woodhead added 47, including a huge 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 play that was instrumental in an early third quarter score as the Patriots opened up a 24-7 lead and turned the Broncos into a one dimensional team for the rest of the contest. On the other side, the Patriots’ defense limited McGahee to just 51 yards on the day. Turnovers were again a problem for the Broncos, as they turned the ball over three times compared to the Patriots’ one.
The Broncos looked like they were going to get off to a fast start when Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 43 yard pass play, but the ball was jarred loose by Sterling Moore, who recovered the ball and got the Patriots out of early trouble. After the teams traded punts, the Patriots then drove 84 yards on 12 plays, with Brady eventually connecting with Wes Welker for the first points of the day. The Broncos struck back on the next possession, scoring early in the second quarter when Manning found Joel Dressen for a one yard touchdown pass. The Patriots then began to force their will on the Broncos, taking 14 plays and 6:08 off the clock before Shane Vereen scampered in the last yard for a 14-7 Patriots lead. It was a lead that the Pats would not relinquish.
After the Broncos downed a punt on the Patriots’ two yard line, Brady engineered a 16 play drive to close out the scoring in the first half. Branden Bolden broke off a big 24 yard run and Ridley added a 14 yard run, and the Pats appeared primed to end the half with another touchdown. But a brilliant tackle by Von Miller stopped Bolden for a four yard loss and the Pats were forced to settle for a field goal, going into the half up 17-7.
The defenses asserted themselves at the outset of the second half, forcing each team to punt. But then the Patriots seized control of the game with yet another long, 16 play drive that took over six minutes, and ended with Brady taking the ball the final yard for a 24-7 lead. On the very next offensive play, Rob Ninkovich sacked Manning and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork. Three plays later Ridley ran for an 8 yard touchdown and a 31-7 lead, and it looked like the rout was on.
Of course playing against Peyton Manning means the rout is rarely if ever on, and Manning began leading the Broncos with some urgency, putting together a 10 yard drive in three and a half minutes that resulted in a beautiful two yard touchdown reception by Eric Decker, and the lead was cut to 31-14. After the Patriots were forced to punt, the Broncos moved the ball to the Patriots’ 47, where they faced a critical fourth and one. Manning hit McGahee for an easy first down play, but McGahee lost concentration and dropped the ball, giving in back to the Patriots with 10:54 remaining. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos’ 37 and faced a 4th and 5. Rather than punting for a short net gain, the Patriots decided to seal the win. Instead, Brady was sacked by Elvis Dumervil and Wesley Woodyard that resulted in a Patriots fumble and a 20 yard loss in the resulting scramble. The Patriots recovered, but it was Denver’s ball on downs. Manning then needed just 6 plays to connect to Brandon Stokely and cut the lead to 31-21.
The Broncos then decided on an ill-advised squib kick instead of kicking away, giving the Patriots great field position at their own 39 yard line. The Patriots then drove to the Broncos 37 after a big 20 yard run by Ridley, who then fumbled on the next play after Mike Adams jarred the ball loose and recovered it for the Broncos. The Broncos needed two scores and Manning completed three of his next six passes to get the Broncos to the Patriots’ 14 yard line, but then Rob Ninkovich came up with his second big impact play of the game, knocking the ball out of McGahee’s hands on the next play, which Jermaine Cunningham pounced on to seal the Patriots’ win.
The victory was Brady’s ninth in 13 games against Manning, but it was the running game and timely defense that propelled the Patriots to victory. Wes Welker caught 13 passes on the day for 104 yards and one touchdown, showing that the rumors of his demise were definitely premature. Rob Gronkowski caught four passes and Brandon Lloyd three as the Patriots’ balanced attack kept the Broncos guessing throughout the game.
Here’s how the game broke down -
When the Patriots ran:
The Patriots rushing attack dominated the Broncos all afternoon, with Ridley averaging 5.4 yards per carry on his way to 151 yards, and Bolden and Woodhead combining for another 101 yards. Patriots’ blockers were able to seal the edge all day to get outside, and inside runs routinely turned up positive yardage. The Broncos had no answers for the Patriots’ ground game today. Advantage: Patriots
When the Patriots passed:
While it was not a performance for the ages, Brady was generally sharp, connecting on 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown pass. Brady was sacked four times on the day, as the Pats had difficulty with the Broncos’ edge rushers. But time and again when Brady needed a play, he found Wes Welker, who seemed to torch the Broncos at will. Advantage: Patriots
When the Broncos ran:
Willis McGahee was held to 51 yards, and the Broncos overall only managed to rush for 70 yards, and only 3.0 yards per carry. McGahee had one run of 11 yards and Manning scrambled for another 10, but otherwise the Patriots’ snuffed the Broncos rushing attack.. Once the Patriots secured the lead, the Broncos abandoned the run for the remainder of the game, until a key fumble by McGahee sealed the Broncos’ fate. The Patriots knew that shutting down McGahee early would be a key to victory, and they got the job done. Advantage: Patriots
When the Broncos passed:
What I said in my preview turned out to be true. Manning started out sluggishly, figured things out as the game progressed, put up huge stats and still lost the game comfortably. Manning threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, and was sacked only twice but one of those was a turnover that led to Patriots’ points. Demaryius Thomas had a solid day, catching 9 passes for 188 yards. Jacob Tamme added six catches and McGahee five, but it was Eric Decker’s pretty grab of a two yard Manning touchdown pass despite excellent coverage from Devin McCourty that should see time on the highlight reels. Advantage: Broncos
Both kicking units had good days, as both Britton Colquitt and Zoltan Mesko were able to turn advantages on field position for their respective teams. Neither return unit made any major errors. Advantage: Tie
Key Moment: Danny Woodhead’s 19 yard run on a 3rd and 17 that helped the Patriots open the game up to a 17 point lead in the third quarter
Game Ball: Stevan Ridley’s 151 yard performance has established him as a bona fide lead back in the Patriots offense and one of the top ten backs in the NFL in this early part of the season
Game Note: Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was active for the first time this season, and was involved in breaking up a few passes, including a key third down play to Brandon Stokely that forced a Broncos punt. The highly talented player dropped to the seventh round based on character issues, and the Patriots may have found themselves a diamond in the rough.