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Snap Judgments: Patriots 41, Broncos 23

12.18.11 at 7:29 pm ET
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The Patriots clinched the AFC East title — their ninth in 11 years — on Sunday, as Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in a 41-23 victory over the Broncos. The Patriots put up 452 yards of offense against a Denver defense that had been outstanding in recent weeks.

The defense was awful in the opening quarter — allowing 167 yards rushing, most ever in a quarter against a Bill Belichick defense — but forced a pair of turnovers in the second quarter and gave up just seven points over the last 44 minutes (just 167 yards allowed over the final three quarters). Tim Tebow did rush for 88 yards and a pair of TDs but was sacked four times and fumbled twice, losing one of them.

The Patriots (11-3) now look for the top seed in the AFC. They host the Dolphins at Gillette on Saturday.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– Look, all the hype this week was about Tebow — which is completely understandable, it’s the reality of things — but it was more than a little odd to see Brady reduced to second banana status all week. And it’s probably a reach to suggest that he needed extra motivation on Sunday, but Brady rose to the challenge of playing in perhaps the most anticipated regular-season game of the season, completing 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a one-yard score.

Aaron Hernandez had the best game of the career, setting highs with nine catches and 129 yards. He hauled in a one-yard TD pass from Brady in the second quarter, and on the next drive caught a fourth-and-inches pass from Brady and turned it into a 25-yard gain. Hernandez made Rahim Moore miss in the open field on several occasions, including a 22-yard gainer to the Denver 1 in the fourth quarter. He also chipped in with a 16-yard rush in the second quarter. Rob Gronkowski is having as good a season as any player at his position has ever produced, but Hernandez is putting together a very solid sophomore year.

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Mark Anderson forced a fumble by Tebow in the second quarter and showed tremendous hustle by also recovering the loose football. And Anderson later picked up a third-down sack of Tebow to halt a drive in the third quarter and had another QB takedown in the fourth quarter. Ron Brace also forced a fumble in the second quarter, ripping the ball out of the hands of Lance Ball. Rob Ninkovich made the recovery. Ninkovich also closed out any hope for another Tebow miracle with a 29-yard sack on fourth down with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

– Colts win, Packers lose, Chad Ochocinco scores a touchdown. Our long nightmare is finally over, as Brady hit Ochocinco (who beat Andre Goodman) for a 33-yard score in the first quarter. That was it for Ochocinco — who started in place of Deion Branch — as he appeared to have more miscommunication issues with Brady.

Danny Woodhead also made his TD debut on Sunday, finding the end zone via a 10-yard draw in the third quarter. The Patriots found success on the ground, finishing with 142 yards on 35 carries. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (10 carries, 17 yards and a TD) was quiet, but Woodhead and Stevan Ridley (10 carries, 60 yards) were able to pick up yardage against the Denver defense.

Von Miller was (rightly) looked at as serious concern heading into this game, but was silent on Sunday. Elvis Dumervil did manage to pick up a sack with a wicked hit on Brady, but overall it was a terrific effort by the Patriots offensive line, as Brady had plenty of time to make plays and the aforementioned rushing attack was superb.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– The oft-maligend (because they have been oft-hideous) Patriots defense had their worst quarter of the season in the first 15 minutes of the game Sunday, allowing 167 yards rushing and 218 yards total. The Broncos put together drives of 80, 82 and 63 yards in the opening quarter, giving up 17 points. Tebow capped the first drive by rushing for a nine-yard score (with Rob Ninkovich failing to take down the Denver QB). Missed tackles and lousy angles were the story early, with Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Sergio Brown (really struggled in this one)  and James Ihedigbo as main culprits. Tracy White and Ninkovich both were at fault on Ball’s 32-yard TD rush that gave Denver a 13-7 lead.

Andre Carter left the game in the second quarter — carted off the field — with an injury to his left knee and did not return. I’m guessing that the Patriots won’t be terribly specific about the severity of the injury, but obviously a season-ender for Carter would be a rough one to swallow for this defense.

Rob Gronkowksi had a 36-yard catch in the fourth quarter, but was largely a non-factor in the passing game, finishing with four catches for 53 yards. Gronkowski failed to catch a TD pass for the first time since the loss at Pittsburgh on October 30.

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