Pats clinch AFC title with 41-23 win over Denver

Pats clinch AFC title with 41-23 win over Denver
December 19, 2011, 12:25 am
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In every cliche lives some truth. Sometimes a lot of it.

Take the one about being unable to win in the NFL if you turn the ball over. All the Tebow Magic in the world means nothing if you fumble, and fumble, and fumble some more . . . especially against the New England Patriots.

The Broncos started Sunday's game as if they were going to run the Pats out of Invesco Field at Mile High, out of the state of Colorado, and perhaps all the way into the Pacific Ocean. They were nearly unstoppable as they rolled up 218 yards in the first quarter -- a pace that would have netted them 872 total yards in the game -- and built a 16-7 lead with nearly 11 minutes left in the half.

New England put together its second 80-yard scoring drive to cut the lead to 16-14 . . . and then the turnovers started. And by game's end -- a 41-23 Patriots victory -- it was hard to remember Denver was ever in this one, let alone in control.

"It's always good to be able to get the ball out a couple of times," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We were able to capitalize on those opportunities."

The victory was important for the Patriots: It raised their record to 11-3, clinched the AFC East title and -- thanks to Houston's loss -- gives them a clear shot at a first-round bye. If they win their final two games (at home against the Dolphins and Bills), they're guaranteed of no worse than second seed.

And the recipe was as old as the game of football itself: Force the opposition into mistakes, and take advantage when they make them:

First, Ron Brace stripped Lance Ball of the ball and Ron Ninkovich recovered at the Broncos 19. The Pats got to the Denver 3 before stalling, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 21-yard field to give them a 17-16 lead.

On Denver's next possession, Mark Anderson strip-sacked Tim Tebow and recovered the fumble at the Denver 40. It took six plays for the Pats to go in, with Tom Brady scoring on a one-yard sneak -- followed by a Gronkowski-like spike -- for a 24-16 advantage.

"I don't get in the end zone very often, maybe once a season," explained Brady, dismissing the notion that he was reacting to the hype surrounding Tebow with his spike. "When I do, I get excited."

Then, in the most egregious error of the day, Quan Crosby muffed a punt on the Denver 17 with three seconds left and Dane Fletcher pounced on the loose ball. Gostkowski kicked a 34-yard field goal on the last play of the half, making it 27-16.

Throw in seven Denver penalties (against only four for the Patriots), and the die was cast. The Pats sandwiched second-half touchdowns around Tebow's second scoring run for the 41-23 final.

Tebow was the game's leading rusher, picking up 93 yards on 12 carries with the two touchdowns, but completed only half his passes (11-of-22) for 194 yards. He was also sacked four times for a rather astounding total of 53 yards, but 28 of them came on a late fourth-quarter desperation scramble on fourth down that completely broke down.
He and the Denver offense looked unstoppable at the beginning -- the Broncos ran for 133 yards in the first quarter, the most rushing yards ever allowed by a Belichick-coached Patriots team in one quarter -- but defensive captain Vince Wilfork said the Pats never lost their poise.
"We knew they were going to come out fast and explosive," said Wilfork, referring to the Broncos' treating this game as a measuring stick for themselves. "Our main goal was to weather the storm."

And quite a storm it was.

"We knew we were going to have to make adjustments," said Wilfork.

After they made them, they held Denver to 175 yards total offense over the last three quarters, and only the one touchdown in the final 41 minutes.
"We turned the game around defensively," said Wilfork.
As for the offense, it was business as usual. Brady had another 300-yard passing day (320) on a 23-for-34 performance, and -- with Denver determined to neutralize Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski -- completed 9 passes to Aaron Hernandez for 129 yards and a touchdown. He even hit Chad Ochocinco (!) with a touchdown pass, a 33-yarder for the first score of the game.

They also had a good day on the ground, as Stevan Ridley (65 yards), Danny Woodhead (40 yards and a TD) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (17 yards and a TD) spearheaded a 141-yard ground attack.

"It was a very emotional game," said Brady. "We showed some mental toughness. We really fought for 60 minutes."

Another football cliche . . . but, like the other one, just as true.