Final, Patriots 41-23: The Patriots have improved to 11-3 and wrapped up the AFC East title. If the Patriots win their next two games — at home against the Dolphins and Bills — they’ll be no worse than the second seed in the playoffs.
Fourth quarter, 1:08, Patriots 41-23: Tebow Time still exists, but it was in Oakland on this day. Minor detour. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford led a 98-yard touchdown drive and scored in the final minute to beat the Raiders and keep the Broncos in first place in the AFC West.
Fourth quarter, 2:10, Patriots 41-23: Rob Ninkovich might have nightmares of trying to sack Tim Tebow, but he at least got a late one, and it came in hilarious fashion. Ninkovich missed Tebow on the initial pursuit but continued to chase him. Tebow just kept running backward video-game-style, and Ninkovich finally closed in to pull him down. Credit Eric Moore on the pursuit, too. But man, Ninkovich was gassed after the play. Great hustle for a 29-yard sack. Yup, 29 yards.
Fourth quarter, 4:10, Patriots 41-23: BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ one-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal pushed it back to a three-possession game and just about ruled out the chance of a Denver comeback.
This came after three consecutive quarterback sneaks, which I think were the result of Denver’s front getting a better push in short-yardage situations. The Patriots hadn’t been running the ball well with the hand-offs by the goal line earlier in the game, and the sneak takes away the defensive line’s chance to sustain its push. Then, on the touchdown run, Brady used a quick snap that was designed to give the offensive linemen a better jump off the ball. So that’s why you saw it play out the way it did, I believe.
Fourth quarter, 8:41, Patriots 34-23: It’s Tebow Time, and the clock has started. Faced with a third-and-18, Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for 39 yards down the right sideline. It was a terrific throw, but that’s on Devin McCourty for sagging off Thomas and getting too low in the zone.
On the next play, Jerod Mayo left Lance Ball as Tebow rolled out of the pocket, and Tebow dumped it to Ball, who ran for 34 yards. I think that’s the toughest part for a defensive player — staying with your man while the quarterback roles out and considers running — but that’s about assignment discipline. I asked players how to handle that situation all week, and over and over, they said they’ve said they need to stay with their assignment. Mayo didn’t, and it cost the Patriots 34 yards.
Tebow ran for a two-yard touchdown on the following play. It was actually well-read by the Patriots, but Tebow is tough to tackle and forced his way through the line. That’s his second rushing touchdown of the game.
Fourth quarter, 11:00, Patriots 34-16: Defensive end Elvis Dumervil just unleashed one of the greatest, cleanest hits on Tom Brady in the quarterback’s career. Brady was airborn and got driven to the ground, and he popped right back up. Awesome toughness. He didn’t even look rattled.
Why did the play happen? Nate Solder made a huge mistake and picked up a blitzing defensive back who went to the B-gap. It was clearly Brian Waters’ assignment, which should have been an easy recognition for Solder because Waters wasn’t lined up over anyone. So Solder took the blitzer and let Dumervil get through without an issue. Brady wasn’t even looking for Dumervil, so he knew the pre-snap call was relayed properly.
The Broncos take over at their own 11 after the punt.
Fourth quarter, 13:56, Patriots 34-16: Tim Tebow is going to need some Houdini stuff to erase this deficit, but he did work a miracle to keep from giving up a safety. Brandon Deaderick had Tebow wrapped up before Tebow fumbled it, recovered it and threw an incompletion. I’m pretty sure Tebow’s forward progress was stopped there, but nothing was called. These officials have had their moments in this game.
Anyway, the Patriots have the ball just shy of midfield after the punt, and they’ve been cruising since midway through the second quarter.
End of third quarter, Patriots 34-16: It’s Tebow Time. I just don’t know if he’s in the right time zone for this one.
Third quarter, 0:39, Patriots 34-16: And the Patriots have taken control, as Danny Woodhead’s great cut helped him score from 10 yards out. Crazy, that’s just his first touchdown of the season.
Somewhere, Gheorghe Muresan is celebrating.
The Broncos, meanwhile, are imploding.
Third quarter, 4:07, Patriots 27-16: Mark Anderson is having a terrific game as the rush linebacker in the 3-4 and sacked Tim Tebow on third down, one play after nearly getting to Tebow as he scrambled out of the pocket. Earlier in the drive, Anderson forced Tebow to fumble, but the officials ruled that his forward progress was stopped, even though they never blew the whistle to actually stop it. So that seemed like a big mistake on the ref’s part.
Third quarter, 9:43, Patriots 27-16: The Broncos bailed out the Patriots in a huge way to start the half, but New England couldn’t make them pay on the scoreboard. After a poor screen play to Rob Gronkowski, a fumbled snap and a delay of game led to third-and-24, Robert Ayers was flagged for a five-yard penalty for illegal hands to Matt Light’s face. The Patriots got to the Denver 49 before punting to the Denver 11.
So much for that chance to bury the Broncos to start the half, though.
The Patriots closed the half with a 3-4 defense with Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich at outside linebacker. Anderson rushed the passer each play. I’m guessing they’ll continue to use that approach without Andre Carter.
Third quarter, 15:00, Patriots 27-16: The Patriots have an opportunity to blow this thing open with the first possession of the second half, which starts at the 20 after the touchback.
Halftime, Patriots 27-16: Huge mistakes by the Broncos at the end of the half, and Stephen Gostkowski made them pay with a 34-yard field goal to give the Patriots 20 consecutive points. After Tom Brady’s touchdown, the Broncos ran three plays and erased just 15 seconds before punting it away. The Patriots only got to midfield before punting, but Quan Cosby fumbled it with three seconds to play. It was absolutely pointless to field that ball, and it cost the Broncos three points.
After an ugly start, the Patriots have rallied to take a two-possession lead, and they’ll receive the second-half kickoff, too.
The Broncos had the ball with a 16-14 lead before their first fumble. Three turnovers later, and they’ve got to mount a comeback against the Patriots. Then again, maybe Tim Tebow has them where he wants them.
The big story of the first half, though, has to be Andre Carter’s left knee injury. He’s already been ruled out of the rest of the game, which shows the Patriots knew immediately it was serious.
Second quarter, 1:12, Patriots 24-16: Tom Brady snuck it in for a one-yard touchdown on second-and-goal, and the play held up on the challenge. Brady had to power through defensive end Robert Ayers, who was driving Brady’s face back with his hand. I wonder if that’s a fineable offense.
Brady got some style points for driving a hard spike on the “O” in the end zone.
Stevan Ridley has taken the majority of the carries in recent drives. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has run four times in this game, and they’ve all gone for no gain.
Second quarter, 4:32, Patriots 17-16: Big play by Mark Anderson, who forced Tim Tebow to fumble as he rolled out of the pocket, and Anderson finished the job, too, by recovering the ball at the bottom of the pile. Anderson is a pretty funny guy, so I’m sure he’s having a good time on the sideline right now.
That’s two fumbles in four plays for the Broncos.
Also, Anderson forcing Tebow to fumble is Alabama-on-Florida crime. Nice little SEC rivalry there.
Second quarter, 5:49, Patriots 17-16: Brian Waters returned at right guard, so that’s a huge break for the Patriots. He only missed one play.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 21-yard field goal to give the Patriots their second lead of the game. Aaron Hernandez couldn’t corral a three-yard touchdown pass on third down, but he wanted Bill Belichick to challenge the play. Replays showed it was a challenge that Belichick would have likely lost. I wonder if Belichick would get ticked at a player in that situation. I can see it being a gray area in a coach’s eyes.
Second quarter, 8:31, Broncos 16-14: Ron Brace checks in with a big play, forcing Lance Ball to fumble, and Rob Ninkovich recovered it at the Denver 19. Dane Fletcher did a good job to wrap up Ball, and Brace poked it free as Ball fell to the ground.
Second quarter, 8:43, Broncos 16-14: Aaron Hernandez was self-deprecating this week when he poked fun at his inability to hold onto touchdown passes this season, but he made sure of the last one. Tom Brady ran a play-action fake to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and then hit Hernandez on a baseline route. Hernandez beat safety Quinton Carter, who has gotten beat on both of the Patriots’ touchdowns.
That reversed touchdown may have led to another casualty. Right guard Brian Waters, the team’s other huge free-agent acquisition, left with an unknown injury on first-and-goal. I really couldn’t figure out how he got hurt. Dan Connolly replaced him on the touchdown play.
Second quarter, 9:18, Broncos 16-7: Wes Welker was ruled down at the 1-foot line after making a terrific catch on the play. But yeah, the officials appeared to make the right call to reverse the touchdown.
Second quarter, 9:18, Broncos 16-7: The Patriots announced Andre Carter will not return to the game after suffering a knee injury.
Wes Welker was just credited with a 20-yard touchdown reception up the left seam, but it’s being reviewed and might get called back after it appeared he was touched down while sliding into the end zone.
Second quarter, 13:47, Broncos 16-7: Matt Prater kicked a 26-yard field goal after the Patriots actually made a stop on third down.
Shaun Ellis replaced Andre Carter at defensive end, which makes sense because Mark Anderson isn’t very effective against the run. Of course, Ellis hasn’t exactly done much this season, but he’s much bigger than Anderson and will be counted on to defeat blocks.
One thing I’ve noticed so far, at least prior to Carter’s injury: The Broncos are double-teaming Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, and they’re running at Brandon Deaderick, who isn’t having a good game. The Broncos might be able to do even more in the running game with Carter out of the mix.
First quarter, 0:03, Broncos 13-7: One of the most irreplaceable players on the team, defensive end Andre Carter, has been carted off the field with a left knee injury. He was in some serious pain, and Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich kneeled over him as he lay on the ground. Carter didn’t appear to get his knee caught between anything, which might be the only optimistic sign throughout the whole play. After, though, didn’t look very good.
Carter has been such a positive person in that locker room, and he’s been a tremendous leader. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever covered. Just a genuinely good person.
First quarter, 3:11, Broncos 13-7: Well, that was an ugly series for the Patriots’ offense. Tom Brady rocketed a pass to Ryan Mallett on the sideline and was a little frustrated with Chad Ochocinco after the play. I just didn’t understand why Brady preferred to waste a play instead of dumping it down to Danny Woodhead, who was in his sight line in the left flat. Brady had an earlier pass bounce off the face of safety Rahim Moore, and the Patriots’ lone first down came on a holding penalty against the Broncos.
Tiquan Underwood did a nice job to haul in a third-down pass down the right sideline, but he couldn’t stay inbounds. The first foot was relatively close, but the second foot had no chance.
First quarter, 5:01, Broncos 13-7: My goodness, the Patriots’ tackling has been horrendous so far. Running back Lance Ball ran for a 33-yard touchdown, getting through Rob Ninkovich’s gap and then by James Ihedigbo in the next level. Ihedigbo also missed his pursuit on Tim Tebow’s touchdown. After that, Devin McCourty was sucked inside and allowed Ball to break toward the sideline, where he carried Nate Jones into the end zone.
That’s just a snapshot of how poor the run defense has been. The Broncos have four runs of at least 19 yards so far.
First quarter, 7:24, Patriots 7-6: And there it is. Chad Ochocinco has his first touchdown as a member of the Patriots, and he was wide open down the left sideline for a 33-yard grab. Ochocinco got the start in place of Deion Branch, who didn’t make the trip.
Now, the coverage was atrocious. Cornerback Andre Goodman pursued him aimlessly and immediately got burned. Then, safety Quinton Carter completely ignored Ochocinco and targeted Wes Welker on a double team on an out-route, which was a brain fart in every sense of the word. I don’t know who played it worse, but I’ll lean toward Carter.
Ochocinco didn’t celebrate, either. He dropped the ball and ran straight back to the bench.
Ryan Wendell started at center over Dan Connolly. I’m guessing they’ll rotate at the position.
First quarter, 9:49, Broncos 6-0: Tim Tebow ran for a nine-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive, and the Broncos ran it down the Patriots’ throats, only throwing it once on nine plays. It was a bad opening series for Rob Ninkovich, who lost containment on Willis McGahee’s 19-yard run to the right side and then failed to tackle Tebow after wrapping him up on the touchdown run. Ninkovich could have taken Tebow down for a loss.
Lonie Paxton’s poor snap caused the extra point to fail. Kyle Arrington picked up the fumbled ball and pitched it to Sergio Brown, who returned it to the end zone and celebrated like he scored. However, this isn’t college, and that doesn’t count for any points.
Dane Fletcher started at linebacker, and Matthew Slater was at safety. The rest of the starters were the normal crew, with Brandon Deaderick at defensive end.
First quarter, 15:00, 0-0: Tim Tebow and the Broncos start at their own 20 after the opening kickoff went for a touchback. The Patriots won the coin toss and chose to kick.
4:13 p.m.: To update an earlier note, the Texans fell to the Panthers, so the Patriots control their own destiny for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. If they win out, they’ll get a first-round bye. Now, here’s the other thing. If the Patriots and Texans each finish 12-4, the Texans would win the tiebreaker with a better record against AFC opponents.
4:06 p.m.: Romeo Crennel and the Chiefs ended the Packers’ undefeated run at 19 consecutive games. Crennel, of course, played a huge role in the Patriots’ 21-game winning streak earlier in the decade.
3:21 p.m. Safety Brian Dawkins is inactive for the Broncos, which is a tough loss for a team that will need to be great over the middle of the field. He missed Wednesday’s practice and was limited Thursday and Friday with a neck injury.
Cornerback Andre Goodman is in the lineup after dealing with a concussion.
3:01 p.m.: Defensive lineman Gerard Warren and center Dan Connolly return to the lineup in Denver. Warren was a healthy scratch last week, and I wondered if it was to give him some extra rest late in the season. He traveled to Washington and worked out on the field before the game, so I didn’t think it was a disciplinary reason.
Connolly missed three games with a groin injury.
2:50 p.m.: Quarterback Ryan Mallett and center Nick McDonald are the last two inactives for Sunday’s game. Both are healthy scratches. I’m definitely surprised that McDonald is inactive. More details to follow.
2:35 p.m.: Here are some links from the week to help you pass the time before kickoff:
Jerod Mayo’s contract was well-deserved, and he might be a Patriots lifer.
Julian Edelman played the primary role as Tim Tebow for the Patriots’ scout team. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s one of the practice players of the week if the Patriots win (they don’t give out the award after a loss).
Wes Welker once kicked a 57-yard field goal in a high school game.
A breakdown of how to stop the Tebow-led offense.
Curious why you’ve seen right guard Brian Waters tap the leg of Nick McDonald before the snap? Here’s what that’s all about.
2:27 p.m.: If you haven’t seen the Tim Tebow skit from Saturday Night Live, you’ve got to check it out. Not gonna lie, I had low expectations for the four-minute skit, but it was definitely funny. Plus, everyone’s going to be talking about it Monday at work, and you don’t want to be the one left out, do you?
1:55 p.m.: Upset alert in Houston, where the Panthers have a 14-0 lead on the Texans. If that score holds up, the Patriots would control their own destiny for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. As it stands right now, if the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Texans all finish 13-3, the Patriots would have the No. 2 seed based on the strength-of-victory tiebreaker, but that can change dramatically from week to week.
The Patriots can still earn the top seed if they win out and the Ravens and Steelers both lose a game. If the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers all win out, the Ravens would win the AFC North, which would drop the Steelers to the No. 5 seed, and the Ravens would have a better record against common opponents (5-0) than the Patriots (4-1).
If the Patriots and Steelers each finish 13-3 and the Ravens finish 12-4, the Steelers would have the No. 1 seed based on their victory against the Patriots earlier this season. That’s why the Patriots need Baltimore and Pittsburgh to lose.
12:58 p.m.: The Patriots have already ruled out wide receiver Deion Branch, safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Brandon Spikes, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and running back Shane Vereen, all of whom did not travel to Denver. For more details on that, click right here.
The Patriots will announce two more inactive players at 2:45 p.m. Just a guess, but it could be quarterback Ryan Mallett (inactive for 12 of 13 games this season) and an interior offensive lineman (either Dan Connolly, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell or Donald Thomas).
8:00 a.m. ET: The Denver Tebows await the Patriots in one of the most hyped regular-season games of 2011.
For some Patriots fans, Sunday will be an opportunity to put a tired storyline to bed. For others, it’s the culmination of one of the most strangely fascinating quarterback duels in the league.
Tom Brady and the Patriots can wrap up their ninth AFC East title in the last 11 years with a victory in Denver or a Jets loss in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Tim Tebow will work to keep the Broncos in sole position of first place in the AFC West.
Stay with NESN.com’s live blog throughout the day for complete coverage.