The Patriots ground game chewed up the smaller Denver defense on Sunday running for 251 yards. (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots defeated the Denver Broncos 31-21 Sunday in Foxboro as they held on while Peyton Manning led a furious fourth quarter comeback that came up just short.

In a scenario, we’ve seen countless times the Broncos seemed dead down 31-7 late in the third quarter, but Manning led them back, finally stopped inside the Patriots 10 yard line when a Willis McGahee fumble was recovered by Jermaine Cunningham.

There were plenty of fireworks on both sides of the ball and it was a great show seeing both Manning and Tom Brady on the field again. Both are still at the top of their games and neither disappointed.

3 UP:
Patriots Ground Game- Last week the Patriots ran for 247 yards against Buffalo, Denver came in allowing just 87 yards a game. I said on Thursday, that the Patriots would still look to run against the smaller Denver defense but don’t expect the same results. And I was right,….to a degree. They ran for more.

The Patriots abused the Broncos nickel packages running for 251 yards on 51 carries and had scoring drives of 16, 16, 14 and 12 plays. On a 3rd and 17, Danny Woodhead slashed for a 19 yard gain. Stevan Ridley gained 151 yards. The Patriots ran their no-huddle but chose to run more out of it, and Denver has no answer.

The Patriots had 35 first downs and had a time of possession of 35 minutes + for the game. The best way to stop Manning is to keep him on the bench and the ground game did that.

Rob Ninkovich- No on the defense has been taking more flack with the exception of Devin McCourty than Ninkovich. But he played a fantastic game yesterday, registering two sacks, (one a strip sack of Manning) and caused two fumbles.

The second of which sealed the deal as Denver was driving for a touchdown that would have narrowed the lead to just three points with three minutes to play. Ninkovich always goes about his business like a pro and while Chandler Jones has been getting all the press, Ninkovich came up big Sunday.

Wes Welker- The “forgotten man” no longer in the Patriots’ offense, Welker had 13 catches for 104 yards, many producing key first downs. While the Patriots experimented earlier in the season for life without Welker, they’ve found that life indeed is just fine with him around and an integral part of the offense.

Welker, with a “tongue-in-cheek” smirk said, “Sometimes it’s good to stick it to Bill,” referencing the media who have made this experiment as a feud with Bill Belichick. Welker now has three 100 yard games in a row and 15 for his career.

Honorable mention- Alfonso Denard saw his first NFL action and Tavon Wilson saw his first start in the NFL. Both acquitted themselves quite well. Not that their play was perfect but going against Manning they did just fine.

Wilson was subbing for an injured Steve Gregory and played up tight, as the Patriots blitzed more and tried to take away Manning’s comfort zone in the middle of the field and force him to throw more outside the numbers and deep.

Denard subbed for Sterling Moore on sub-packages and made two big plays, one breaking up a pass intended for Brandon Stokely. The rookies on the defense continue to pay dividends. Not a big deal in Sept./Oct. but will be huge in January.

3 Down:
Linebacker Coverage- This is an on-going problem and one that will need to be addressed at some point this season.  The Broncos and Manning targeted the linebackers in coverage at nearly every opportunity and the results were a huge mismatch for the Broncos.

The Patriots linebackers were late and well behind the backs and tight ends, especially in the flat. With the best coverage linebacker, Bobby Carpenter standing on the sideline, the coaches need to insert him more into the sub-packages.

Sterling Moore- Moore was torched badly on a couple of passing plays and continues to get picked on by the opposition. Early in the game, Manning hit Demaryius Thomas on a deep pass down the middle, Moore did make a good play, poking the ball out and the Patriots recovered, but if Manning put more air under that ball it was an easy touchdown as Moore was far behind in coverage.

Thomas snagged a beauty of a one-handed catch down the sideline in front of the Patriots bench later with Moore trailing much too far behind again in coverage. It wasn’t a shock to see Denard to replace him in the sub-packages later. This move will bear watching down the road.

Clock Management At the end of the 1st Half- On a day where they managed the clock beautifully, the Patriots made a curious and bad choice at the end of the first half. Inside the Broncos ten yard line with 26 seconds to go and two time outs, the team opted to rush up to the line and attempt two running plays that failed.

It caused them to lose valuable time and settle for a field goal by Stephen Gostkowski and a 17-7 halftime lead instead of going in up 21-7. While it is easy to second guess this choice since it failed, perhaps this was an example of them trying to be too cute.

The team would have been better served by burning one of their timeouts and ensuring a better play call to punch it in the end zone at the end of the half.

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