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Patriots adapt on both sides of ball in win

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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Posted Dec. 19, 2011 @ 5:45 p.m. ET
By Kevin Fishbain

The Patriots avoided getting Tebowed, improved their defense mid-game and caused crucial turnovers in their 41-23 win that clinched an AFC East title.

All the hype about Tim Tebow and the Broncos' success didn't seem over the top at all when you watched the first quarter, as Denver ran all over the Patriots en route to a 13-7 lead.

But it was the middle of the game when the Patriots dominated.

In the second and third quarters, the Broncos gained only 80 yards, lost three fumbles and were outscored 27-3. Denver racked up some yards and points in the fourth quarter, but it was garbage time, not Tebow Time.

In "Shorts and Shells," colleague Eric Edholm discussed the Patriots' in-game changes on defense to slow the Broncos' attack, thanks to some improvised play-calling by Matt Patricia. Check out his story for that angle, for the purposes of this Spin, Sunday's win was another example of how dynamic the Patriots' offense can be.

The PFW Spin

While everyone in Denver (let's face it, everyone everywhere) was talking about Tebow, Boston had been captivated by Rob Gronkowski. Gronk had established himself as the league's elite tight end, scoring 10 touchdowns in the team's previous six games.

Then there was Wes Welker. Welker might have cooled off from his torrid start to the season, but he entered Sunday having caught 26-311-3 in the team's previous three games.

With the successes of Welker and Gronk, it was hard for the story line of "who will emerge as another weapon for Tom Brady?" to carry much weight. With Deion Branch out for Sunday's game against Denver, there still wasn't much concern.

But if I told you that Gronkowski and Welker combined to catch 8-94-0 in a game with the Patriots' defense playing the way it has, you'd be hard-pressed to predict a 41-point output.

Enter TE Aaron Hernandez, the forgotten man in the Patriots' offense who, at times last season, was a more effective weapon than Gronk. Hernandez's versatility to play out of the slot makes him an extra receiver who still can be an in-line blocker. He hasn't needed to do much, but the extra attention paid to his teammates allowed him to break out.

Hernandez led the Patriots with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets. He is putting up huge numbers this season (68-736-6 in 12 games), but has been overshadowed by Gronkowski and Welker.

In addition to Hernandez, Chad Ochocinco finally found the endzone on a 33-yard touchdown catch.

And the running game awoke from its slumber thanks in part to rookie Stevan Ridley. The Patriots rushed for 141 yards, their highest output since Week 11. Ridley broke onto the scene in Week Four with a 10-97-1 day against the Raiders. Since then, he had 30 carries for 83 yards (2.8 yards per carry). On Sunday, he had 11 rushes for 65 yards, including a 24-yarder. Danny Woodhead continued his recent success by rushing for 40 yards on seven carries, including a 10-yard TD run.

While the defense was adapting to slow down the Broncos, Tom Brady was finding other ways to score and other targets to go to. As discussed here last week, the Patriots are well aware of how many points they need to put up each week in order to win, and they showed in Week 15 that they can be explosive even with their top weapons kept relatively under wraps.

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