Patriots Report Card: Week 15

Aaron Hernandez led the Patriots with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, plus 16 yards rushing, in Sunday's blowout victory over the Broncos. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Whatever the source of the Denver Broncos’ new-found momentum, it ended in the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots. Neither Tim Tebow‘s speed nor his supplications could turn back Tom Brady‘s ruthless but balanced offensive attack. The Patriots beat the Broncos, 41-23, clinching the AFC East and moving ahead of both Pittsburgh and Houston for the AFC’s top seed.

Tebow majored in Family, Youth and Community Services, but are the Patriots the true bachelors of divinty? Vox Goisman, vox dei.

Quarterback: A

Brady didn’t play Sunday’s game like a quarterback who’d only won once at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, completing over two-thirds of his passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Given decent protection by his line, Brady had little trouble sitting in the pocket and waiting for his receivers to get open. He averaged nearly 9.4 yards per reception, throwing 15 first-down passes. He even rushed for a touchdown!

Running Backs: A-

The Patriots rushed for 141 yards Sunday – their highest total in nearly a month. Stevan Ridley continued transitioning his game to the NFL, leading the team with 11 carries for 65 yards. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis backed Ridley up with a touchdown apiece that showed off their complimentary running styles: Woodhead scampered 10 yards into the end zone in the third, Green-Ellis bulldozed past the left guard for 1 yard in the fourth.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A

Aaron Hernandez was clearly sick of Rob Gronkowski getting all the praise this season. His response? Nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown reception that started the Patriots’ 20-point swing in the second quarter. He also rushed for 16 yards on an end-around during the drive leading up to his touchdown.

Gronkowski and Wes Welker probably didn’t mind the lighter workload – they’ve combined for over half the Patriots’ receptions and receiving yards this season – but they still kicked in eight catches for 94 yards. Chad Ochocinco even got in on the act, slipping his defender and making a 33-yard touchdown bomb from Brady look easy early in the first.

Offensive Line: A-

Ryan Wendell, the Patriots’ most recent center, got flagged for holding, and the line allowed two sacks and three additional tackles-for-losses. Otherwise this was a solid game from the Patriots’ patchwork offensive line. Though dominated early on, the line still freed up enough lanes for the running backs to establish a ground game. By the second half, Logan Mankins was easily clearing out blockers on goal-line rushes.

With an offense that actually rushed slightly more than it passed, Brady could usually sit in the pocket without fear of the blitz.

Defensive Line: B+

Andre Carter‘s season-ending knee injury is a giant blow to the Patriots’ already-weak pass-rush, but Sunday Mark Anderson filled in, sacking Tebow twice, stripping him once and recovering in Denver territory. Gerard Warren and Kyle Love also combined on a sack.

The defensive line’s inability to contain the Broncos in the first half – and first quarter especially – cost them an A, but the line’s smarter play in the second half cut the Broncos’ production nearly in half. Anderson and the linebackers stopped getting fooled on Tebow’s option-runs, and Tebow doesn’t have the arm strength to win as a passer.

Linebackers: B+

The linebackers are supposed to stop runs before they get into the secondary. The Patriots’ linebackers failed to do that in the first half, easily getting beat either up the middle or around the edge by Tebow, Willis McGahee or Lance Ball. The Broncos piled up 252 rushing yards Sunday, easily breaking the linebackers’ sloppy, around-the-waist tackles.

But the linebackers also smartened up in the second half, containing the rushing game (68 yards, 30 on one Tebow scramble) and forcing the Broncos to win by passing. Rob Ninkovich sacked Tebow on fourth-and-17 late in the fourth to kill the Broncos’ last chance to get back in the game. He also recovered a fumble in the second.

Defensive Backs: A-

Tebow only completed 50 percent of his passes Sunday, racking up just 194 yards in the air. A big reason: the Patriot secondary, which actually managed to hang with Bronco receivers on many passing plays, especially in the second half. Once the front-seven stopped letting Tebow slip past them, Tebow had to throw away pass after pass because a) he doesn’t have the arm strength to throw deep, and b) his receivers were rarely open, anyway.

Devin McCourty did allow a 39-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on third-and-18 early in the fourth, and that drive ended in the Broncos’ only second-half scoring play. But that’s just McCourty: terrible, but one of the only corners left.

Special Teams: A

Another flawless game from the Patriots’ special teams: Stephen Gostkowski nailed both field goals – including one set up by Dane Fletcher recovering a muffed-punt with 3 seconds left in the first half – and five extra points. The Broncos averaged starting yardage behind their 18-yard line – over 6 yards behind the Patriots following kickoffs or punts – and never even reached their 30 on a return. The Patriots didn’t commit a single special-teams penalty. Gold star.

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