DENVER – This was as close to a complete game as the Patriots have played all season.
If you were to grade it on a scale of 100, New England would've earned a 75. Throw out that abysmal first quarter and the Patriots would have been close to perfect Sunday at Mile High.
It started with the defense.
To try to contain the seemingly unstoppable Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos offense, New England came out in what has become its standard 4-3 front this season. Which did them absolutely no good. The Broncos ran wild – literally – picking up 167 yards rushing and two touchdowns (one by Tebow) after the first 15 minutes.
The Patriots had four. That's right, four yards rushing. Total.
One minute and 10 seconds into the second quarter, Denver had a 16-7 lead.
That was the end of that nonsense, as far as the Patriots were concerned. Defensively, they went back to their bread-and-butter, the 3-4, and Tebow's offense couldn't adjust. They gained just 15 more yards on the ground in the second quarter.
New England remained stingy from there on out. They also stole from the Broncos, taking three of Denver's four fumbles, including one on special teams. The Patriots offense capitalized, converting all three turnovers into 13 points.
"Tebow was moving their offense, and we were moving it a little bit," left guard/co-captain Logan Mankins observed in the celebratory post-game locker room. "The defense did a great job. They got the ball out twice. I think we scored both times, then that fumbled punt right before half was really big to get another score."
That gave the Patriots a 27-16 halftime lead. But no New England lead has seemed safe this season, and against a Denver team defined by its late comebacks, a two-score deficit was something the Broncos could reasonably be expected to overcome.
Except this time, the Patriots refused to relinquish their grip. Even after losing leading sacker Andre Carter on the last play of the first quarter. The Patriots knew what was at stake. Not just the outcome of this game, but also the AFC East crown. A win would guarantee it. A loss would get it, too, but they'd need the Jets to lose as well. New England didn't want to back into it, though.
While the defense held firm, the offense found its killer instinct. With an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter following another Tebow touchdown run, New England drove into Broncos territory, but settling for a field goal would still keep Denver within striking distance, needing just two scores.
The Patriots needed seven points, and they got the, deflating any fleeting hopes the Bronco faithful had of their newfound savior, Tebow, performing another miracle comeback.
"That was nice," Mankins added, "to get another score up there to make it tough on them, kind of knock the air out of those guys. I think we had a better fourth quarter [than usual]."
New England's running game woke up, too. In the closing minutes, the Patriots were able to run the clock out almost to the very end. By that time, the game was clearly decided.
"We always talk about finishing the game," remarked tight end Aaron Hernandez, who led all receivers with nine catches (one for a touchdown) for 129 yards. "We did a better job of running down the clock in the four-minute part at the end of the game. Turned out great for us."
"Yeah, it was big," echoed wide receiver Wes Welker. "We always talk about finishing those drives with touchdowns, especially in that situation and putting ourselves up three scores and making it really tough on them. Our defense really responded, was able to get a turnover-on-downs. It was a good team effort. We all played well together and played well through the end."
Standing at his locker in just a towel as he addressed reporters, safety James Ihedigbo answered a question, then paused. In the awkward moment of silence, he realized he'd forgotten something and turned back to his locker to retrieve his AFC East championship hat and t-shirt.
He then continued.
"We knew that it was about us. Tebow, he's a great player, and I've said it before. He's shown the power of Christ as his and our Savior to the world, and made that known, and it's a powerful thing. But coming on this field, it's about winning a football game. We were determined. It was tough sledding early, but we focused, settled down, and played great ball for the rest of the game. Now, we're wearing one of these hats.
"I mean, wow," he added, "AFC East champs. We have a competitive division. To work as hard as we have this year to come on top, it's a big step in the right direction. We have a few more championships to win now."
If the Patriots are going to win another championship, they're going to have to continue playing the way they did for three quarters today.
Yet, as giddy as the team was – and that was one punch-drunk visitors locker room afterward – the Patriots were able to keep Sunday's win in perspective.
Asked if he wanted to earn another championship hat and t-shirt for the AFC title and the Super Bowl, linebacker/co-captain Jerod Mayo nearly spoke his mind.
"You know … we take it one week at a time … you almost got me there," he admitted with a laugh. "Hey, I almost said it, I almost said it!"
Regaining his composure, Mayo concluded, "Our focus is one week at a time and our next game on Saturday."