FOXBORO -- Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard showed up at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon, not knowing what his game-time status would be.
With his hamstring injury seemingly healed, the seventh-round pick was activated for the first time in his career. He didn't find out until today, but that doesn't mean he didn't feel prepared.
"I know I had a pretty good jump in practice," said Dennard after the Patriots' 31-21 win over the Denver Broncos. "I participated like they wanted me to. And they just told me, the more you compete, the more you get a chance."
Dennard got his first chance in the second quarter, and Peyton Manning targeted him right away, when the Broncos needed a first down.
With Denver trailing 14-7 with under six minutes left in the first half, Manning tried to force a 3rd-and-5 rocket over the middle to Brandon Stokley. Dennard made good of his first chance to make a big play, and batted it down, forcing the Broncos to punt, which led to a Patriots 93-yard drive and a field goal to give New England a 17-7 lead at the end of the half.
"It felt pretty good, going against Peyton Manning," said Dennard after the game. "I know he's a great quarterback, and I had a lot of comfort from Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, all of them just told me to go out there and play my game, and everything will come to you."
Dennard admitted to being nervous in his first NFL appearance. He also admitted to being rusty. Neither is usually a good mix when going up against someone like Manning's stature.
"Ya, I kind of felt a little rusty," said Dennard. "Basically because I wasn't practicing enough, because I was out with a hamstring injury. So, I was kind of like shaky going out there. I was thinking too much, basically. I think it's like a mental error."
That shakiness didn't necessarily translate into failure for the rookie on Sunday. And after his big third-down break-up in the second quarter, Dennard was in on another big break-up late in the game.
With the Broncos trailing 31-14, Manning tried to force a pass deep down the left sideline to Eric Decker, but Dennard was there to break it up. It was a big play, but would have been even bigger, had the rest of the Patriots defense done the same. Instead, the Broncos recovered from Dennard's effort, and scored their third touchdown of the game minutes later on the other side of the field.
It wasn't enough for Denver's offense though. And Dennard can walk away from his first career NFL game knowing that he did his job. And he did it in big spots.
Still, as it goes in New England, there's always room for improvement.
"I feel like I have to do a lot more work," said Dennard. "Technique-wise, I was kind of sloppy. I've got to watch the film first.
"I feel like I haven't done anything to be all hyped about," he added. "You know, because I haven't gone on the field and did anything. So, tonight I feel like I did an alright job. I've got to watch film and see what my correction is."
"It looked like Dennard was in on a few plays," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the win. "Well take a closer look at it on film. I think there are a couple other things that werent so hot, but he did show up and make a couple plays, so that was good . . . We had a lot of guys contribute, but it was good to see Alfonzo out here. Good to see."