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When the going got tough, the Patriots got going

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 19, 2011 09:18 AM

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The AFC is all but there for the taking, only the Pittsburgh Steelers are now standing between the Patriots and the top seed in the AFC. The skeptics will remind you the Patriots were the top seed in the AFC last year. The realists will say it is time to give them their due.

Facing deficits of 6-0 and 16-7 on a day in which they also lost their best defensive player of the season, the Patriots rumbled to a 41-23 victory over the Denver Broncos yesterday at a rabid Sports Authority Stadium. Coupled with losses by both the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, the victory moved New England thisclose to the top seed in the AFC pending the outcome of the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers tonight in San Francisco.

Oh, the Patriots are still flawed, as we all know. But give them their due.

"This was a real good win for our football team. Give the players all the credit," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the victory. "They did a real good job [yesterday] against a good football team. We fought back and made plenty of plays to win in all three phases of the game.

"I’m just really proud of the way we responded to the challenge. They stepped up and played good football today. Really happy about the win."

And he should be.

Let's be honest. Quite some time has passed since the Patriots played a game with this kind of intensity, particularly on the road. You have to go all the way back to the Nov. 13 win at the Jets. Since that time, the Patriots have played one tomato can after the next, only the game at Philadelphia amounting to some real kind of potential challenge, right up until Eagles quarterback Vince Young started missing receivers as if he were playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

The Eagles all but rolled over in that game, dropping to 4-8 the following week at Seattle before being resuscitated by the return of Michael Vick.

But this game? This game had far greater potential to unravel. Denver entered having won six straight and 7 of 8 to become the feel-good story of the NFL. The Broncos then scored on their first three possessions (two touchdowns) and ran for an astounding 167 yards on 15 rushes in the first quarter, a mind-blowing average of 11.1 yards per carry. Denver's second scoring drive was a four-play, 82-yard sprint down the field during which the Broncos had gains of 29, 22 and 32 yards.

Along the way, the Patriots lost defensive end Andre Carter, presumably for the season.

So what did the Patriots do? They responded by scoring the next 27 points of the game, albeit with some help from a Denver outfit that couldn't hold onto the ball and committed seven penalties, a number of which were extremely ill-timed. The most damning sequence for the Broncos came at the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third, when the Broncos gave up the football and field position with astonishingly undisciplined play and decision-making, allowing the Patriots to open a bulging 34-16 lead.

Given Denver's generally plodding offense, that was too much for the Broncos to overcome, particularly while Tom Brady was slicing up the Broncos for 320 yards and a 117.3 passer rating.

Still, as much as we all know the shortcomings of the Patriots defense, let's deal in facts. Denver's first fumble, while soft, resulted when Patriots defensive lineman Ron Brace knocked the ball from a falling Lance Ball. The second came when Mark Anderson similarly punched the ball free from Tebow's grasp. Only the third Denver mistake - a muffed punt at the end of the first half by a brainlocked Quan Cosby -- was an egregious giveaway, the kind of mind-numbingly stupid decision for which a player should be benched.

In the end, the point is that the Patriots defense isn't really good enough to stop anyone on downs. The best we can hope for at this stage, particularly without Carter, is for the Patriots to cause a turnover or two and hope that the offense capitalizes.

And the Patriots did.

Now, whether the Patriots can repeat this same type of performance after January 1 is anybody's guess because, as we all know, even the NFL regular season only means so much. The Patriots went 14-2 last season to earn the top seed, then spit up on themselves in a home playoff loss to the New York Jets during the divisional round. Pending the outcome of tonight's game between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, the Patriots are the top seed in the AFC and would face either the Jets, Broncos or Baltimore Ravens in the first round. And we all know that the Ravens and Jets are the two teams New England has opposed (and been defeated by) in the postseason.

And so, what are we to make of this Patriots team with regard to the postseason? That is obviously still impossible to say. But with home games remaining against Miami and Buffalo, the Patriots yesterday faced what was the toughest remaining regular season game on their schedule. Under adversity, they stood up, held their ground, and pushed back. By consequence, they put themselves in the best possible position entering tonight's game between the Niners and Steelers, the latter of whom now stand as the only team that block New England's road to the No. 1 seed.

That alone won't win the Patriots a Super Bowl this year.

But based on what we have to grade them on, it is a notable achievement worthy of recognition.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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