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Receivers (4.5 out of 5)
Some really terrific play out of this group, especially blocking; we counted 13 standout plays. Welker had his finest game of the season, doing everything well. Great blocks by Deion Branch, Gronkowski, and Vollmer on Bolden’s 24-yard run on third and 1 late in the first half. Nice blocks by Gronkowski on Elvis Dumervil, and by Welker on linebacker Wesley Woodyard (how does that happen?) on the 20-yard run by Ridley before his fumble. Great team blocking — and a complete failure by the Broncos (especially Woodyard) — on Woodhead’s improbable 19-yard run on third and 17. Gronkowski and Nate Solder worked combo blocks to the outside, Dan Connolly and Wendell to the inside, and Branch and Welker did their job down the field.
Offensive line (3.5 out of 5)
If any group was helped out by the no-huddle, it was the line, because the Broncos weren’t getting lined up, couldn’t dial up as much pressure, and were tired. Ranked in order of performance: Mankins, Solder, Connolly, Vollmer, and Wendell. Wendell (two half-sacks, hurry, 1.5 run stuffs, penalty) had a tough time when the Broncos were playing a guy over him. The fourth-down sack was a tough block for Wendell because he was actually held and ripped by rookie end Derek Wolfe, which left no chance to pick up the blitzing Woodyard. Real good design by the Broncos on the zone exchange that had Connolly, Vollmer, and Gronkowski blocking the same guy. Connolly probably should have helped Wendell . . . Mankins, who pancaked Woodyard on Ridley’s 7-yard run before halftime, was flawless outside of his false-start penalty . . . Awkward sequence before halftime when the Patriots squandered 4 points as Wendell got blown off the ball by Justin Bannan on the 1-yard run, and then tight end Daniel Fells let Miller, who was a terror, blow up the third-down play.
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
Take Ron Brace out of this group, and it was close to perfect. Rob Ninkovich’s stat line (sack, two forced fumbles, hurry) says it all. Chandler Jones (three of the team’s nine pressures, pass breakup), Vince Wilfork (hurry, half-knockdown, tackle for a loss), and Kyle Love (1.5 run stuffs) were robust. On the Broncos’ surprise third-and-4 gun run early in the third quarter, Love did a great job of holding up against the double team to allow Ninkovich, who beat the tight end, and Brandon Spikes to stuff it for 1 yard. Another huge play by Love on third and 1 with 11:26 left when he forced Ronnie Hillman outside and Devin McCourty cleaned it up for no gain. That set up Willis McGahee’s drop on fourth down.
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
Jerod Mayo (sack, hurry) probably didn’t play the Broncos’ first touchdown, to tight end Joel Dreessen, as well as he would have liked. Don’t know why Mayo was so focused on Peyton Manning while Dreessen ran to the corner alone. The coverage, especially by Mayo when he knocked down Dreessen, should get some credit for Ninkovich’s third-quarter sack/strip of Manning in 3.45 seconds. Spikes played a lot (85 percent of the snaps) for a passing game, and had a half-knockdown and tackle for a loss.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Yes, there is a fine line between turning around to play the ball and peeking too early and losing a receiver, but McCourty should know enough now to turn around against Erik Decker on the pass interference penalty. It’s not good enough. On the 38-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on the final drive, McCourty got out of phase (not being shoulder to shoulder with the receiver) so he had to run harder to get back into phase, which left himself open to the back shoulder. And then you have rookie Alfonzo Dennard, who had no problem playing the ball on back-to-back good plays in the fourth quarter, the second with an assist from Patrick Chung, who continues to take bad angles. Dennard (31 of 67 snaps) has limitations in knowing the defense, but he obviously has a natural feel that deserves more time. When Chung isn’t paired with an experienced safety, the position really suffers. Tavon Wilson looked lost at times in his first start. On Thomas’s fumble, Wilson tried to jump Brandon Stokley with two teammates. Wilson should have been in the middle of the field to help against Thomas. Kyle Arrington and Wilson both butchered Stokley’s touchdown in the fourth quarter. Arrington took the play fake. Wilson was late reacting when he likely is supposed to play the first vertical route that’s apparent to him.
Special teams (4 out of 5)
Very good all around against a tough Broncos unit. Zoltan Mesko (4.55 seconds average hang time on three punts) and Stephen Gostkowski (4.33) showed very well. Matthew Slater had a great kickoff tackle; Wilson lost contain on the 33-yard return.