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Patriots Report Card: Week 9 vs. Denver

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The game of the year turned out to be just another quick stop for the Patriots Express.

Following a predictable week of hype leading up to Brady/Manning XVI, the Pats welcomed the Denver Broncos to Gillette Stadium on Sunday and crushed them, 43-21, in as impressive and exacting a performance as they've given all season. For the 11th time in those 16 games, Tom Brady out-dueled Peyton Manning, and Rob Gronkowski continued to stake his claim as the most vital weapon in the league while the defense, stocked with shiny, new toys named Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, put the clamps on Denver's numbers machine of a quarterback, forcing him into two interceptions and allowing little but a truckload of empty numbers.

With the win, the Patriots took control of the AFC and gave themselves a little more rope for when the tough stretch their schedule has them on continues against the Colts following this Sunday's bye. You can bet that after a week like this, they'll have a nice time just kicking back for a little while. So with that, let's get into this week's report card, now even more exciting than ever before.

OVERALL GRADE: A-

OFFENSE -- First, the necessary disclaimer: The Pats could have been better on offense. There were two dropped touchdown passes. Brady missed on a couple deep shots and, strangely, a couple of swing passes. They never got the running game going although they did at least try to stay with it (sort of), allowing them to effectively continue to run play action and reward Jonas Gray for his efforts with a couple of decent gainers toward the end of the game.

But thatís all nitpicking. The Pats had an aggressive game plan and that, along with Brady making some mind-bogglingly good throws into teeny-tiny windows, Edelman dominating the first half and Gronk simply being Gronk, was enough to produce 36 points and seven possessions that resulted in some type of score against a defense that entered the game among the top ranked in the league.

Brady did two things exceptionally well. He extended multiple plays with great footwork and movement both within and outside the pocket, and he managed to connect on several throws where there was a minuscule throwing lane and very little room to put the ball. Edelmanís touchdown was an example of the latter. Broncosí safety T.J. Ward, known more for his low hits than his coverage ability, actually had Edelman blanketed on the play, but after a little pump fake to Gronk (who was double-covered at the goal line) Brady whipped the ball to the only place he could for the score. And on his TD pass to Shane Vereen at the end of the first half, he slid just a little bit to his left to avoid a charging DeMarcus Ware before delivering a strike over the middle.

Earlier on that drive, on second-and-20, he moved away from some pressure coming from the left side A gap then stepped up to rifle a pass to Edelman, who had gotten between Ward and Aqib Talib near the far sideline, for 26 yards. Then in the third quarter, after the Broncos had gotten within two scores of the lead, he found Danny Amendola for 21 yards on a third-and-8, again moving just far enough to his right to create enough open space to get set, look downfield and fire the ball.

There was more. He finished with 333 yards and four more TDs, giving him 18 against just one pick (thrown in this game) to go with 1,601 yards and 72.6 percent completions since Kansas City, and continuing to pile onto the mountain of huge performances heís posted against Denverís defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio over the course of his career.

All of that plus Edelman, a couple of huge catches by Vereen (5-38, TD) at critical times, Amendolaís contribution, another score and five more catches for Brandon LaFell (to whom Brady has a 115.6 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus) and a wire-to-wire effort from the offensive line, which survived both a couple of brain farts from rookie Bryan Stork and allowing eight combined hits on Brady, to continue its evolution into one of the strengths of the team. It all equals 201 points scored over this five game winning streak, an average margin of victory of 18.4 points and some serious momentum as the Pats cruise into the bye. Not too shabby.

Oh and RoboGronk. How could I forget? The best tight end on earth plays for the Pats. And thereís no argument. GRADE: B+

DEFENSE - This game produced one of the best ever cases for those who follow the credo that ďstats are for losers.Ē The Broncos rolled up 472 total yards, 438 of them credited to Manning, yet they were blown out, never getting closer than 13 after Edelmanís runback halfway through the second quarter. The Pats kept Manning off balance with their looks up front and covered extremely well throughout.

What really stood out more than anything else the D accomplished though was how effective it was getting off the field on third and fourth downs. Denver came into the game fifth in the league on third down and first on fourth, then were shut out in the first half (0-for-5 and 0-for-1 respectively) in the first half and held to just 3-for-11 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down for the game. The Broncosí longest possession of the entire game lasted a whole 3:30 and ended in a punt. And their three scoring drives went 3:15, 2:24 and 1:57 in that order.

Thatís some pretty impressive stuff from a group that has had severe issues getting off the field for years. The team that came to embody the idea of ďbend but donít breakĒ over the past handful of seasons has shed that tendency and is making plays and stops with alacrity.

The Pats have a solid secondary, maybe their best since the title season of 2003, although itís probably fair to say that Devin McCourty is better than Eugene Wilson and Browner is better than Tyrone Poole. The amount of damage those guys (as well as the linebackers who dropped back to cover) did chipping and hitting and just being physical within the first five yards of pass patterns went a long way toward throwing off the rhythm of Denverís entire operation.

The stars of the show were absolutely Browner, who lends an edge to the entire group with the way he plays and is a perfect weapon to counter the Broncosí receiving corps, and Patrick Chung, who spent the majority of the game in coverage as opposed to run support and may have played the best game of his career. Manning picked on him and outside of a TD to Julius Thomas that was such a perfect throw and catch - no one could have made a play on it - Chung held up and made plays. Imagine what kind of dimension it will bring to the secondary if he can keep up the same level of play moving forward. There hasnít been anywhere near an above average strong safety back there since Rodney Harrison retired.

Up front, credit Vince Wilfork for spearheading the Patsí run defense, which was outstanding without having to commit more than six men for a good chunk of the game. Denver never even came close to getting rolling on the ground, finishing with just 43 yards on 17 attempts (2.5 YPA). Rob Ninkovich had that game-changing interception on which he dropped into coverage and read the over route perfectly. Ninkovich, Jamie Collins and Dontía Hightower all bounced back and forth between dropping and staying home to defend the run or rush Manning and the liberal amount of switching Ė both up front and from side to side in the secondary Ė clearly affected the Broncos.

Everyone on the defense gets a gold star. Collins had his best game since last yearís playoff win over the Colts. Kyle Arrington returned from the dead and set the tone immediately with a big tackle of running back Ronnie Hillman for a minimal gain. Newcomer Akeem Ayers made one of the plays of the game with a huge fourth down sack of Manning, made possible by great push up the middle from Wilfork, and played almost the entire game. Even rookie Malcolm Butler got in on the fun, playing ahead of both Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard and hanging in well. In the biggest test of the season, those guys couldnít have done much better. GRADE: A-

SPECIAL TEAMS/COACHING - The Pats annihilated the Broncos on special teams. Jonathan Casillas, whose been here five minutes, had three tackles. There was Edelmanís record setting return. There was a missed 41-yard field goal by Denverís shaky, rookie kicker. There was an interference penalty on a punt that gave the Pats better field position and led to three more points. You donít see 13-point swings in that phase of the game too often but the Pats are so solid, so well coached and so tough there that itís not surprising they could produce one.

The coaching faceoff was a mismatch too. John Fox and Jack Del Rio are fine and on a day like the one last January, at home, in perfect conditions and needing to stop players like Matthew Mulligan and Austin Collie, it makes sense that they have the upper hand. But when Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have both a healthy complement of players and reinforcements like Gronk and Brandon LaFell over Mulligan and Collie, someone needs to stop the fight.

Those reinforcements extend to the defense too with Browner and Revis and even Ayers. Forget all the passing yards, the Pats clearly threw wrinkles at the Broncos they werenít prepared for and hadnít seen before and they couldnít adjust. Who knows what will happen if these two teams meet again in the playoffs? You can be sure the game plans will be at least somewhat different on both sides but after that, itís impossible to tell.

Or maybe itís not that tough. Because the Patriots win the coaching battle every time. And if they also stay healthy, that may just be enough to beat Manning and the Broncos again, no matter where the game is played. GRADES: SPECIAL TEAMS: A, COACHING: A

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