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Matchup Winners: Gronk continues his assault




There were some questions coming into the game regarding how strong the Broncos were against the run given their high-powered offense's ability to make opponents one-dimensional. Few people would question it after watching Denver shut down the Patriots ground game even in a blowout. New England never got anything established on the ground, even watching the normally automatic Tom Brady sneak get stuffed for no gain on an early third down. Neither Jonas Gray (12 carries, 33 yards) nor Shane Vereen (11 carries, 29 yards) averaged 3 yards a carry and the Patriots finished with a paltry 66 yards on 25 attempts and a 2.6-yard average. Even when Brady tried to spread out the Broncos front, Vereen was unable to find much running room, and for the second straight week the Patriots tried to go fast after some successful plays only to have the rushing attempts met in the backfield. Not much doing on the ground.  EDGE: BRONCOS



In last year's regular-season meeting the Broncos piled up 280 yards on the ground and many claimed afterward that the porous effort was by design. Bill Belichick wanted Peyton Manning to run the football, and by doing so Denver "fell into the trap." While that seemed somewhat foolish at the time, judging from Belichick's improvements on Sunday it's even more laughable. Clearly the Patriots did not intend to allow such production a year ago and the performance was dominant this time around. Ronnie Hillman tried to establish things early and was stymied throughout. He picked up 16 yards on 10 carries. As a team the Broncos finished with 43 yards on 17 attempts (2.5-yard average), leaving Manning and the Broncos in numerous long-yardage situations. Vince Wilfork, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins stuffed the inside running lanes effectively all evening long and Denver had no answers. The ability to stop the run with limited personnel was a huge factor in the victory. EDGE: PATRIOTS



Fortunately the NFL is a passing league and the Patriots were able to generate more than enough offense because of Brady and Rob Gronkowski. The tight end has never looked better and his recent dominance has opened up the entire offense. The Broncos had no answers for him and Gronkowski finished with nine catches for 105 yards including a magical one-handed catch down to the 1-yard line that preceded his only touchdown of the day – the 50th of his career. Gronkowski consistently occupied coverage while Julian Edelman (nine catches, 89 yards, one TD) and Brandon LaFell (six catches, 53 yards, one TD) took advantage. Through it all Brady was again magnificent, eluding a heavy Broncos rush that was consistently in his face throughout the evening. Despite the heat Brady found ways to complete 33 of 53 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns. He did throw his first interception in more than a month – an ill-advised heave down the seam under heavy pressure that was deflected twice before Bradley Roby snared it – but Brady once again got the better of his arch-rival.  EDGE: PATRIOTS



Manning never looked comfortable from the start. Whether that was due to the weather, which featured high winds and cold temperatures, or the Patriots flooded zones, he never found himself in rhythm. Yes, he eventually completed 34 of 57 passes for 438 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he also threw two picks, the first of which was a dreadfully bad decision and throw that turned the game around. Leading 7-6 early in the second quarter, Manning somehow failed to see Rob Ninkovich drifting toward Julius Thomas and hit the defensive end in stride. That led to a touchdown and the Patriots never trailed again. Manning did make some terrific throws, particularly to Emmanuel Sanders (10 catches, 151 yards) and Demaryius Thomas (seven catches, 127 yards), but most of his trademark short stuff underneath was taken away. Kyle Arrington dominated Wes Welker (three catches, 31 yards, one huge drop that led to Brandon Browner's interception). Julius Thomas (two catches, 33 yards, one TD) was a non-factor as Patrick Chung and Browner roughed him up. Throughout Belichick switched things up and kept Manning guessing, using mostly zones with extra defensive backs to clog the throwing lanes.  EDGE: PATRIOTS



The Patriots figured to have an edge in the kicking game coming in but few thought it would this significant. Rookie Brandon McManus hit the upright with a 41-yard field goal in the second quarter that could have stemmed the tide. That wasn't long after Edelman broke the game open with an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown on a play in which Broncos punter Britton Colquitt dropped the snap and hurriedly rushed his kick. Meanwhile Stephen Gostkowski was once again money in difficult conditions, making all three of his field goals including a 45-yarder into the wind and recording three touchbacks. Ryan Allen struggled a bit in the conditions and had a 27-yard shank into the wind but also recorded the longest punt of his career with a 67-yarder in the second half. The Patriots coverage was solid, although the group did miss on a pair of opportunities to down punts inside the 5. Otherwise this was another dominant effort on special teams for New England.  EDGE: PATRIOTS

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