FOXBORO The spin put forth and I was spinning too was that the Patriots would go as far as Tom Brady would take them.
Their defense? A liability. Something to be overcome.
But on Saturday night, with the football world and Tebownians everywhere watching, the Patriots executed their defensive plan to perfection. Bottling up the Denver running game, holding the Broncos to five plays or fewer on eight of their 13 drives, the Patriots oft-lamented group made it so Brady only had to score 11 with his offense to win.
They scored 45 just for good measure. And the New England defense could exhale and answer questions for once about what went right.
Those guys up front did a great job, said linebacker Jerod Mayo when asked the key to the performance against Tebow. I cant even lie to you. Those guys up front did an excellent job. Vince (Wilfork), Gerard Warren, (Brandon) Deaderick, Kyle Love. They let us run through and let us make plays, man, helluva game.
Admittedly, the Broncos were bringing in an offense from the football stone ages. But it was good enough for them to have won 7 of 8 at one point before the Patriots beat them 41-23. And it exploited an undermanned Steelers defense last week in the Wild Card round.
And the New England defense hadnt shown enough for anyone to feel secure theyd shut anyone down, no matter how much of an anachronism they were.
But in the cold and the wind of a January night in Massachusetts, Denver got nothing done. Their lone touchdown drive was a 24-yard excursion off a Brady interception in the second quarter.
I asked Wilfork how it felt for the defense to pull its oar as hard as the offense and Brady have all year.
If he plays well then everyone else plays well, said Wilfork. When he has an off-day, we try to rally around him as a team to help Tom and the offense. We arent going to get 20-30 points all the time. It doesnt happen like that. Our job as the defense is to stop the opponent. Whatever we score, make them score less. Thats the mind-frame we have. We dont want to depend on offense to score 30 points just thinking that each week is going to be like that. We arent going to set ourselves up for failure.
But it had shaped up that way. To believe theyd play this well was to take on faith the idea that, at some point, theyd coalesce as a unit.
Faith is something Wilfork and other defenders have had all year in the face of porous performances and disheartening statistics.
All year we had confidence, said Wilfork. I remember talking a long time ago, at the beginning of the season, about the confidence I had in this team and this defense from what I can see we can do. The main thing is guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys dont believe what we are capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way. I think that with a performance like tonight, in the postseason, everything is elevated. We dont want to be good; we want to be great, especially at this time.
You want to be able to make the game changing plays and great situational plays, Wilfork continued. All that comes in, but this team wont go away.
The biggest game-changing defensive play ended Denvers first possession. After moving from their own 24 to the Patriots 37, Rob Ninkovich got around the edge and strip-sacked Tebow. Brandon Spikes who had a terrific performance recovered. And the Patriots scored to go up 14-0.
In other games, picks and turnovers came like found money. Right place at the right time stuff, it seemed like. This was a playmakers play.
There were other flashy plays too five sacks of Tebow. But the guts of this game was simply keeping Tebow and the Denver running game contained.
We stressed all week on keeping him contained, keeping the run contained, not letting the ball outside, said Ninkovich. When youre out there playing and you want to go one way because you see him, but you know that hes got the ability to get outside and really hurt your team. So youve just got to be disciplined in your responsibilities in the defense. Just playing good team defense all together and great communication, it starts with that.
No defensive player was biting on the vindication storyline.
In one ear and out the other, Ninkovich said when asked if it was nice to get a chance to shut people up. As a defensive player, I couldnt listen to that. Anything outside of here. People can say what they want but at the end of the day its about wins and losses and we were able to get 13. During the year we had our ups and our downs and we were still able to put an eight-game winning streak together.
And advance to the AFC Championship.