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Monday, November 3, 2014

Well That Was Unexpectedly Easy: Patriots Blow Out Broncos 43-21 to Grab AFC's Top Seed

Even in the wildest dreams of the biggest Patriots honk (and they are everywhere), I find it hard to believe that anyone could have predicted that New England would handle big bad Denver frankly so easily on Sunday afternoon. The Patriots (7-2 overall, 5-0 home) trailed 7-3 in the first quarter but then scored 24 unanswered points en route to a 43-21 victory over the Broncos (6-2 overall, 1-2 away).

The snow that covered the ground this morning had melted away by gametime but Peyton Manning's (34 of 57 for 438 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) same old problems vs. Tom Brady (he fell to 5-11 against him) continued along with the fact that he needs so many different factors to be nearly perfect (weather, wind, temperature, etc.) to break all these records that ultimately mean absolutely nothing. It was the fifth straight win for the Patriots since their debacle on Monday Night Football in Kansas City a month ago.

The win really meant something for the Pats since this was their chance to go ahead of the Broncos in the all-important race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Tom Brady (33 of 53 for 333 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT) continues to play at an MVP-level, a far cry from before this win streak when we all thought the world was ending (starting with him being an average quarterback).

Rob Gronkowski (9 catches, 105 yards, TD) is playing some of the best football of his career while Julian Edelman (9 catches, 89 yards, TD; 84-yard punt return for a TD) had one of the best games as a Patriot. Anytime you can hold a Peyton-led team to 21 points, your defense is doing something right. New England's offseason plan of acquiring Darrelle Revis (5 tackles, 1 pass defensed) and Brandon Browner (interception) sure looked like money well spent.

I don't know if I'd go so far as to call Denver soft but much like Manning, when things don't seem to go there way, they appear to let it get to them rather quickly. Emmanuel Sanders (10 catches, 151 yards) had a huge performance but New England kept him out of the end zone after he scored three times in the week before vs. San Diego. Demaryius Thomas (7 catches, 127 yards) is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL but again, the Patriots didn't allow him to score.

The first quarter wasn't exactly an instant classic as Stephen Gostkowski hit a 49-yard field goal and Ronnie Hillman had a one-yard touchdown run for the short-lived 7-3 Broncos lead. Gostkowski opened the second quarter with a 29-yard field goal and then it was the Edelman Show as he caught a five-yard touchdown pass then returned that punt (his 4th career punt return TD, a new Patriots record) 84 yards for the electrifying moment.

The Pats have made it a habit of scoring right before halftime this season and today was no exception as Shane Vereen caught a five-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left in the second quarter. New England leading 27-7 at the break was a dream but the sobering memory from last year (the Patriots rallied from a 24-point halftime deficit to win in overtime vs. Denver) made us not get too ahead of ourselves, well at least a few of us.

Julius Thomas showed up for a minute in the third quarter, catching an 18-yard touchdown pass that cut it to 27-14. The Patriots continued to shred Denver's supposedly great defense with a 45-yard field goal by Gostkowski then Browner picked off Manning (who hung poor Wes Welker out to dry) and returned it for 30 yards down to the Broncos' 10-yard line. Brandon LaFell caught a touchdown on the next play and the rout was on.

Hillman made a nice play to dive around the pylon for a score after a 15-yard catch and run later in the third quarter. Gronk closed out the scoring with a one-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth. Rob Ninkovich had a key interception in the first half when it was still competitive and New England's defense held Denver to 3-for-11 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down.

The bye week comes at a good time (I know everyone always says that)-halfway through the regular season. The Patriots earned some rest and a little time away from football before they reconvene to start work on the Colts (5-3 overall, 1st in AFC South) who they meet for Sunday Night Football (8:25, NBC) at Lucas Oil Stadium.

You try not to read too much into one game since as we see every week in the NFL: things change rapidly and good teams lose to bad teams all the time. Still, as a Pats fan you couldn't have asked for a better showing from your favorite team against their biggest rival/threat in the AFC. Should these teams meet again in January (most likely in the AFC Championship Game), and you know the NFL wants nothing more than that, you'd have to like New England's chances if it was in Gillette again.

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