The New England Patriots ground attack shredded through the Broncos defense as Stevan Ridley rumbled to a career best of 151 rush yards. Danny Woodhead came up with the biggest run of the game when he rushed for 19 yards on a 3rd and 17 play during a key third quarter drive. Quarterback Tom Brady led the drive from there and eventually took it into the end zone himself on a one-yard touchdown run.
Running back Brandon Bolden added 54 rush yards of his own to the Patriots 251 total yards on the ground. Shane Vereen contributed with a one-yard touchdown run to cap off an 80-yard second quarter drive, while Woodhead also posted 47 yards rush yards on only 7 carries.
The Broncos found no answer to the Patriots high-powered rushing attack as New England defeated Denver 31-21 Sunday evening in Foxboro. Brady is now 9-4 against quarterback Peyton Manning, defeating him for the first time in a Denver uniform.
Brady and the offense marched methodically down the field in the first half against a helpless Bronco defense. After a punt to start the game, the Patriots went on three straight 80-plus-yard scoring drives. Manning came back with a touchdown down drive of his own, making the score 7-7 at the beginning of the second quarter.
The Patriots answered.
Brady took over with the ball on his own 20-yard-line and faced a third and ten. He quickly hit Wes Welker with a pass for a first down. Woohead kept the drive going with a first down run of his own. The Patriots entered the hurry up offense, and the Denver defense quickly folded. Ridley ran the ball for a first down, which was quickly followed up by a 15-yard strike to receiver Brandon Lloyd and a 12-yard catch by Rob Gronkowski. Two more quick first downs setup the Patriots on the one-yard-line. Vereen capped the six-minute, 80 yard drive off with a one-yard touchdown run, putting the Patriots ahead for good.
New England finished the second quarter off with a 93-yard drive and a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
The Patriots continued to pound away at the Broncos defense with a near replica six-minute, 80-yard touchdown drive early in the third quarter. Ridley reached 100 yards as Brady and the offense maneuvered their way down the field once more.
Manning would not go quietly, however, as he willed the Broncos back into the game despite being down 31-7 late in the third quarter. He exploited the Patriots weakness in Devin McCourty at cornerback, finding receiver Demaryius Thomas for 9 catches and 188 yards. Manning cut through the Patriots defense and brought the Broncos within striking distance after a touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley with eight minutes left to play. A hush fell over Gillette Stadium as the Patriots found themselves only up by ten.
The Patriots lead was too much for Manning and the Broncos to overcome late in the fourth quarter. Rob Ninkovich came up with his second forced fumble of the game when he stripped Willis McGahee on the Patriots own 10-yard-line. Jermaine Cunningham recovered the ball and Bolden ran for one more first down before the Patriots knelt the ball to run out the clock.
New England finished the game with a team record of 35 first downs, 18 of which came on the ground. It only makes sense that the Patriots offense held the ball for nearly 36 minutes compared to the Broncos 24 minutes.
Welker too set a record of his own with nine catches in the first half alone. He finished with 13 grabs for 103 yards and a touchdown. After a slow start to the season and many questions about his role in the Patriots offense, Welker now has 469 receiving yards in just the last four games and is New England’s leading receiver.
Manning led his team through the air with 345 passing yards and three touchdowns. He brought the Broncos back and gave them a chance late in the fourth. McGahee ran for 51 yards but never truly got going on the ground. In the end, Brady had something Manning didn’t.
In a game where Brady and Manning excelled at the quarterback position as they usually do, the Patriots run game answered the call. On the day the Brady-Manning rivalry was renewed once more, the Patriots running backs led the charge. Ridley, Bolden, and Woodhead scorched the Broncos defense as Manning could only watch on the sidelines.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has the New England offense operating at a highly efficient level. More importantly, he may have given quarterback Tom Brady a key weapon in a lethal run game.
It’s difficult to say that a season can be like a roller coaster after only four games, but that’s exactly what the 2012 Patriots have felt like. The team got off to a promising start with a win against the Titans but quickly dipped back down after a game full of twists and unexpected turns against the Cardinals. The downward spiral continued in Week 3 against the Ravens as the Patriots lost on a controversial game-winning field goal in which coach Bill Belichick sprinted onto the field to grab a replacement referee. The roller coaster continued to speed downhill as the Patriots found themselves down 21-7 in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills. Finally, it quickly shot upward when the Patriots offense finally woke up and put 45 points on the board in the second half to steamroll the Bills 52-28.
After all that, the Patriots sit at 2-2 and tied atop the AFC East with the Bills and the Jets. The Pats could be 4-0, but inconsistency has led them to this roller coaster of a start in the 2012 season. Let’s break down the strengths and weaknesses thus far.
1. The Run Game – Over the course of the first four games, the Patriots have managed to run the ball for 576 yards, good for 8th overall in the NFL. Stevan Ridley alone has 339 of those rushing yards and averages 4.6 yards per attempt. Ridley and Brandon Bolden each had 100-yard games last Sunday against the Bills, making them the first two players to accomplish such a feat in 32 years for the Patriots.
2. Tom Brady – Yes, Brady has been inconsistent at times, but overall he is the reason the Patriots could be 4-0. Brady executed a comeback against the Cardinals that should have led to a game-winning field goal, but didn’t. Brady tore up a stingy Ravens defense but to no avail. He’s only thorwn one interception in the four games and continues to be the leader this team needs.
3. The Defense – Through the first two games, the defense looked much improved and kept the Patriots in the game against the Cardinals. It only allowed 284 and 242 total yards of offense in those first two games. Rookies Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Tavon Wilson have all stuck out and have made big plays of their own early on in the season.
1. The Coaching – Sitting at 2-2, the Patriots have played in four games that probably should have been won. Although it’s the players who don’t execute, Offensive Coordination Josh McDaniels has made some questionable play calls that have caused the Patriots offense to sputter at times. Belichick himself made a questionable move by not trying to advance the Patriots into better field goal range against the Cardinals. This led to a missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal. It’s not to say that he made the wrong call but certainly questionable
2. The Offensive Line (at times) – Although it has played better in recent games, the O-line struggled to protected Brady, most noticeably in Week 2 against the Cardinals. Although it hasn’t been atrocious, Brady is used to a strong offensive line that can allow him to sit back in the pocket and pick apart defenses.
3. The Defense – Yes, the Patriots defense has not only been a strength through the first four games but also a weakness. After a strong start, the Patriots defense allowed 503 and 438 total yards consecutively against the Ravens and Bills. Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington look equally lost at the cornerback positions, and at times, the line has failed to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. That being said, only time will tell whether the Patriots defense is truly a strength or a weakness.
Looking ahead, the Patriots do not have a very difficult schedule. Of the remaining 12 games, eight should result in a W. The four remaining games that could prove to be a challenge are against the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, and San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots are too talented of a football team to play inconsistently the rest of the way. A 10-2 record in the remaining 12 games is not a stretch. This would put the Patriots at 12-4 to finish the season, easily putting them at the top of the AFC East and possibly at the number one or number two seed in the conference.