1. Julian Edelman — Caught nine balls for 110 yards and a pair of TDs, with all but one of those catches (14 yards) coming after intermission. A huge night for him, coming alive after this football team trailed 24-0 at the half.
2. Rob Gronkowski — He’s such a weapon. Forces the defense into mismatches everywhere. And yet, with defenders draped all over him, he delivers your basic seven catch-, 90-yard night with a TD. Healthy, he stamps this team as one to watch in the AFC come playoff time. But he, more than anyone other than Tom Brady, must stay healthy.
3. Chandler Jones — He’s the only one on this defense capable of making an offense flinch. Makes it 10.5 sacks on the year to lead this team and was in Peyton Manning’s face a half-dozen other times.
1. Dont’a Hightower — The Pats used Dane Fletcher and an absolutely gimpy Brandon Spikes over him in the second half, and I’m not sure Hightower was hurt.
2. Stevan Ridley — Another third-rounder headed to the scrap-heap. Ball security. It’s like the boxer who bleeds every fight. There’s nothing you can do. If you can’t hold on to the football, you start relying on that LSU degree.
3. Rob Ninkovich — Zero solo tackles and 13 assists mean you’re getting to the pile a little late. He’s being asked to play out of position, so we will take it easy on him, especially with the Pats coming back to win.
GRADING THE GROUPS
Line (C) ... The running game is as inconsistent as can be. And Tom Brady was under siege the entire first half. The line nearly got the QB’s head taken off. Yes, it settled in and finally slowed down Von Miller and Co. in the second half, but there are issues here.
Running Backs (D) ... Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount each had fumbles, sending them to the heated bench for the night. Brandon Bolden was one carry for 33 yards and 12 carries for 25 yards, which is hardly consistent.
Wide Receivers (C+) ... Julian Edelman was a one-man show. Aaron Dobson wasn’t targeted all night, and both Kenbrell Thompkins and Danny Amendola spent the night well-covered and whining for flags, combining for nine catches for 73 yards.
Tight Ends (B+) ... Another money game for Rob Gronkowski. His impact on this offense was amazing.
Quarterback (B+) ... The first half counts for something, or he would have grabbed an “A.” With him, a 24-0 deficit is a minor obstacle. The kid was clutch, throwing into a Nor’easter and living to tell about it with a 34 of 50, 344-yard, 3-TD effort.
Line (D) ... Unmasked by Knowshon Moreno in a 224-yard rushing night. Man, is this front soft.
Linebackers (D-) ... You’re asking Dane Fletcher to make plays on defense. And you’re asking Dont’a Hightower to do something, and Brandon Spikes to hobble on what looks like a bad injury. But nobody is making plays in this group.
Secondary (B) ... Receivers were not running wide open. They were not the issue. Even on the game-tying TD drive, it was Moreno doing a ton of damage with the run.
Pin this one on Wes
As good a player as Wes Welker was here and as good a guy as he is, if you’re a Denver Broncos fan, you’re pummeling 83 for not coming up and fielding that punt in overtime that glanced off Broncos’ defensive back and ex-Patriot Tony Carter, recovered by Nate Ebner to set up the game-winning field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
Welker is in there for safety. He should have run up into traffic and made the play. He was tentative, and the Broncos paid the price.
Hate to be him and be listening to sports talk in Denver today.
For the night, Welker only had four catches for 31 yards.
Bash away, folks
Look, I’ll go to the wall with the job Bill Belichick has done this year. He and his staff have done a great job holding things together at 8-3.
But a coach is supposed to put his football team in a position to best make plays and to win. By not taking the football in overtime and giving it to Peyton Manning, the Pats took an awful chance.
The defense held, but Manning turned the field, and barring a really questionable offensive pass interference call, might have scored.
That said, there is a deeper problem growing on this coaching staff, and it is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
For the second straight week, with the game on the line, McDaniels became the Pat Buchanan of play-calling, getting ultra-conservative.
The Pats had the lead, 28-24, late in the fourth and the football deep in Denver territory. New England went run up the gut, short pass, short pass, field goal.
Get a TD there, and the game is over. Instead, the Pats settled for 3.
Settling last week in Carolina cost this team a win. Last night, it forced overtime, as with life, Manning delivered the game-tying touchdown.
It’s a growing concern here.
Spikes shows a-plenty
On a night where Knowshon Moreno rolled for over 200 yards on the ground, I’m giving my game ball to a Pats linebacker who had three solo tackles in regulation and totally played his heart out.
Brandon Spikes limped from play to play and is clearly not right. But he still showed plenty of heart. Not that the Pats had many other options. Dont’a Hightower was banished to the bench, somewhere with Stevan Ridley. And Dane Fletcher was already out there on the field.
Steve Beauharnais was inactive. Spikes had to be out there, and he played all he could, right into the overtime.
It was a courageous effort.
What the future holds
When it comes to the playoffs, this victory was huge. Instead of New England being stuck with the Bengals and Colts at 7-4 and probably looking like a longshot for the No. 2 seed, the Pats are a game behind Denver, with the tie-breaker head-to-head for the top spot and a bye.
The lead is now three games in the AFC East, too.
One of the most unexpected comebacks in history has this franchise’s playoff hopes looking way up.