1. Aaron Hernandez — Targeted 11 times, he caught nine balls for 129 yards and a touchdown. Just an immense day. He torched corners, safeties and linebackers. An equal-opportunity thumping.
2. Mark Anderson — Delivered the play of the day in the second quarter, foiling a Tim Tebow option pitch and then pouncing on the pillow for the recovery. Filled in brilliantly for the injured Andre Carter with three solos and a pair of sacks.
3. Ron Brace — For what seemed like the first time in his pro career, he reached out and touched someone, stripping the football from Lance Ball for a huge second-quarter fumble.
4. Wes Welker — One of the biggest 4-catch, 41-yard performances you will ever see. Pay the man, now.
1. Jerod Mayo/Vince Wilfork — A media critic mocked me a week ago for "no-showing" these two as Washington shredded the Pats defense for 170 rushing yards. This time, the Broncos averaged 8.1 yards a carry on their 31 tries for 252 rushing yards. Superman (that is, Tommy Two Sacks) Mayo led the way with seven solos, on which the Broncos gained 5.4 yards per play. Wilfork had three solos, but the bottom line is this defense was mauled on the ground, and these two guys are the face of it.
2. James Ihedigbo — Lost in coverage, yet still dances. I don't get him. He's making Brandon Meriweather's angles to the football look sharp. Don't talk the talk if you can't walk the walk.
3. Chad Ochocinco — The Broncos defense was there to be had. At least this week he managed as many catches as Tiquan Underwood.
GRADING THE GROUPS
Line (A) ... Nate Solder and Matt Light allowed a couple free runs at Tom Brady. Other than that, it was a monster day for the men up front, who blocked it up against various blitzes and two of the better edge pass rushers in the game. Pats backs ran 30 times for 139 yards, a 4.8-yard per carry average.
Running Backs (B-) ... Nice day for the rookie, Stevan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead ran hard, right up until he was decleated by D.J. Williams. The pair combined for 105 yards on 18 carries. Warning flags go out when BJG-E carries ten times for only 17 yards vs. this porous defense.
Receivers (C) ... Wes Welker's production was down, only four catches for 41 yards. The near-TD 19-yarder was jaw-dropping. Tiquan Underwood, Julian Edelman and Chad Ochocinco had their opportunity with Deion Branch inactive, and none of the three stepped up.
Tight ends (A) ... Yep, another monster day for Rock and Hard Place. This time it was Aaron Hernandez doing the heavy damage. Even on a quiet afternoon, Rob Gronkowski managed 4 grabs for 53 yards.
Quarterback (A+) ... Tom Brady punched in on his MVP campaign with Aaron Rodgers taking the early hit in Kansas City. Hit 23 of 34 for 320 yards and a pair of TDs.
Line (B-) ... They were gashed left, center and right from beginning to end. Yet, they delivered the two pivotal forced fumbles from Mark Anderson and Ron Brace.
Linebackers (D-) ... Just a worrisome day as Dane Fletcher takes a step back after being the one linebacker showing signs of life in Washington. Rob Ninkovich had as many missed tackles as he had solos (3). Jerod Mayo was active early but did little after the first two drives. Did we mention the Broncos ran for 252 yards on 31 carries?
Secondary (D) ... How many times did we hear Phil Simms claim receivers were open? And the guy who supposedly can't throw averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt.
(B+) ... The patchwork job on the defense continues to be solid. Big day for Bill O'Brien orchestrating his offense. An easy win in the coaching battle here.
(B+) ... For the third time this year an opposing punt returner whiffed and gave New England the football. Otherwise, there wasn't much in the Mile High air to make the kicking game a factor.
WHY BELICHICK'S BETTER: YET ANOTHER 1ST-ROUND COACHING KO
You know, John Fox has this reputation, one that he belongs with the upper echelon types.
I listened to it over and over, culminating in February of 2004 when for a week in Houston I listened to it relentlessly before Super Bowl XXXVIII.
And then I watched Fox's club throw away a Super Bowl and was reassured that when he walks onto the sideline, he is clearly overmatched.
The Broncos' coach provided a nice little refresher course as he and his troops self-destructed on the big stage — committing idiotic penalties and basically fumbling away a game to the Pats yesterday.
Fox was at his worst in the final two minutes of the first half when his play-calling left the Pats with an extra opportunity to score instead of running out the clock.
Saved by his defense, Fox was granted a chance to escape, forcing the Pats to punt with 14 seconds left.
And somehow the coach must have been convinced that a game-changing 90-yard punt return was coming.
Instead of letting Zoltan Mesko punt into the end zone, Fox sent a returner back and, of course, Quan Cosby fumbled to give the Pats a free three points — the imperfect end to a brutal, three-fumble second quarter.
I will fast-forward to the fourth quarter when the Pats were comfortably ahead prepping to celebrate the AFC East title.
After a rough afternoon with the officials, at this point it was six flags on Denver to one flimsy 5-yarder against the Pats, New England finally got flagged for a hold, at which point Fox began to mock the officials with cheers.
Maybe they deserved it, who knows?
But Fox's argument is nullified and his point is made moot two plays later when his defense is flagged for 12 men on the field in short yardage.
Coach Fox, rule No. 1 in the NFL.
Get your house in order first. Command some respect from the stripes. Then you can start to complain.
TEBOW WINS IN SPITE OF THAT TALENT
We heard it all week from the anti-Tim Tebow lobby. This streak, his amazing 7-1 winning percentage this year, all the comebacks, were anything but Tebow. It was the defense, the running game, the Almighty stepping in for the cause.
All I can say now is imagine what this kid could do if the Broncos actually gave him a little help.
Look at the pieces on this offense:
One decent lineman ... Ryan Clady.
A backfield of a journeyman — Willis McGahee — and a trio of nobodies.
And a receiving corps that nobody knew when making their fantasy football selections back in August.
Eric Decker? Demaryius Thomas? Neither resembles a frontline receiver. Yet Tebow and the Broncos prosper.
Come on, man?
No, the fact that this guy has his football team on the precipice of an AFC West title at 8-6, after Kyle Orton got them off to a 1-4 start, is his first miracle on the road toward sainthood.
And Denver boss John Elway should be ashamed of the lineup they've forced this kids to try to succeed with.
You have to love kid's toughness, running out of tackles by Rob Ninkovich and James Ihedigbo among others.
His two TD runs were vintage Tebow. And the kid made some great reads and throws along the way in his 11 of 22, 194-yard passing day. He did enough through the air to win it.
Ironically, it was Tebow's mistakes in the run game that cost him yesterday, despite leading his team with 93 rushing yards.
Tebow made one awful option read, tossing an inside forward pitch instead of looking to the edge.
And he made one late pitch read, which turned the game when Mark Anderson disrupted it, causing a fumble which he recovered.
Literally, that fumble turned the game.
FIVE THOUGHTS AS THE AFC EAST CHAMPS LOOK AHEAD
1. I will yield to Tom Brady, who is clearly on the page set by this corner weeks ago when he told Tebow on the field afterward: "Good luck the rest of the way, maybe we'll see you again." Yes, you will Tom. In January, at Gillette Stadium for the AFC Championship.
2. Give the Jets credit. When they play a game that really doesn't matter to them, like yesterday's in Philly, they tank in style. New York didn't bother to show up but still takes the second wild card with the Giants and Miami.
3. Andre Carter is an immense loss to this football team. But add it to Deion Branch, Pat Chung and all the rest.
4. Brady is flat-out amazing, a man who is clearly still capable of carrying this band of mediocrity all the way to the Super Bowl. The road to the AFC title still goes through Foxboro and does so because of No. 12.
5. Brady will feel the lick he took from Elvis Dumervil at approximately 4 a.m. Monday morning when all the pain medication wears off. Man, the guy is courageous and so very tough.