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Analysis/reaction: Broncos-Patriots

Posted Jan 14, 2012

Finally, and when it counted most, the Patriots put together a complete, 60-minute effort in all three phases.

You wait.

Just you wait.

When this Patriots team finally plays complementary football for an entire game, it’ll be scary to see how good they can be.

That’s what New England players have been preaching for the past several weeks.  

Saturday night, it happened.

Gone, now, is the stigma of losing consecutive playoff games at home and three postseason contests in a row, dating back to Super Bowl XLII. Gone, too, are the lethargic openings and double-digits holes out of which to climb, which have come to define this 2011 Patriots squad.

So, what was different Saturday against Denver?

For starters, the start. Normally, if the Patriots win the coin toss, they choose to defer to the second half, kicking the ball off to their opponents. But New England lost the flip to Denver, but the Broncos deferred and the Patriots got the ball first. Less than two minutes later, they were up 7-0.

A little more than six minutes later, they doubled the score, thanks to an injection of momentum from linebacker Rob Ninkovich’s strip-sack of Denver QB Tim Tebow. The Broncos were mounting a potentially game-tying drive when Ninkovich pilfered the pigskin from Tebow.

Tom Brady and the Patriots offense needed just three-and-a-half minutes to double their lead, and they never stopped piling on the points.

Sure, there were a couple of hiccups: Brady’s floating INT at the end of the first quarter, and rookie running back Stevan Ridley’s lost fumble in the third. But there was no stopping Brady, who tied an NFL playoff record with six scoring tosses.

In all three phases of the game, the Patriots dominated the Broncos.

“That shows, when we come out strong and don’t come out slow, how dangerous we can be,” observed tight end Aaron Hernandez, who burned the Broncos not only through the air (4 catches, 55 yards, 1 TD), but also on the ground (5 carries, 61 yards).

“I just do what the coaches ask me,” continued Hernandez. “They put me in position to try to make plays and help the team. I love running back. I hope they keep letting me do it, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever I can do to help this team get to that next game.”

“We just came out there with a lot of fire,” offered wide receiver Wes Welker. “We knew we wanted to get off to a good start and score early and play this team from ahead. That’s what we were able to do, and that was key for us. Absolutely. We talk about it all the time, and this is the time to do it [in the playoffs]. It really kind of came together today. Hopefully, we just keep that going.”

The offense’s hot start helped fire up the defense on this frigid New England night. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich paced the Patriots (5 tackles, 1.5 sacks).

“All year, we’ve been preaching starting fast, four quarters, finishing the game. Really, this was our first four-quarter game,” he conceded.

“The offense, every time they had the ball, were very dangerous. That’s our job, is to get them the ball as many times as possible. Whenever the offense just gets the ball, they go down and score, it’s 7-0, you want to have that. ‘Let’s get the ball back, give it to them, make it 14, make it 21.’

“[The strip-sack] was a good play, turning the momentum in our favor, to get that 14-0. It’s great whenever you can get a sack-fumble and get the recovery, it’s a good play all around. I’m glad I was able to do it and help the team. It gets the defense into the game, like, ‘Hey, we can control the game. We can give our offense the ball any time.’ We just have to continue that mentality.”

New England now awaits the winner of Sunday’s other Divisional Round game. The winner of Houston-Baltimore visits Gillette Stadium next Sunday at 3 p.m. for the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots could not have picked a better time to start peaking.

“As a team, we’re coming together and realizing that this is our time,” Welker added. “We need to play well. The playoffs, that’s what this is for. We all went out and did that today and have to follow that into next week.”

“This is a one-game season now,” stressed Ninkovich. “Coming into this game, we knew the loser is going home and not playing again. You think about all the work that goes into getting this number-one seed, the 13 wins. You know, last year, the great season we had, and that terrible feeling you have … with nothing to show for it. We really take that to heart, that this is a one-game season. Whoever we have to play, we know they’re going to be a great team and we have to prepare.”

All year, the Patriots have been telling us to wait and see just how good they can be if they just play a complete game.

With their 45-10 throttling of Denver, now, we know.