DENVER - The Patriots won yesterday, 41-23, but they may have suffered a big loss in the process: defensive end Andre Carter, who has been the team’s most consistent pass rusher, went down on the final play of the first quarter with a left leg injury.
A league source said Carter will require quad-related surgery, which could well mean that his season is over, though there was no word from the team on the severity of his injury.
When Carter went down, at the tail end of a 2-yard Lance Ball run to his side of the field, he was clutching his left knee.
“That’s tough,’’ defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said of losing Carter. “Andre puts so much in with his leadership alone. He gives a lot to this team. To see him go down is tough. Any time someone goes down it’s tough, but to see a guy like that - he hasn’t really won a lot in his career, but now he’s winning, he’s happy here, he’s having fun, he’s playing well - to see him go down, it’s a blow.’’
Carter has 58 tackles this season, with 10 sacks and 22 quarterback hits, both team bests.
Mark Anderson stepped into Carter’s spot and responded with his best game of the season. The sixth-year player had three tackles, including two sacks - one of which was a strip-sack in which Anderson recovered the ball.
“That’s just another day for me at the office,’’ Anderson said. “Everybody’s got to step up sometime. I’ve been in this position before; it’s not like I’m a rookie and I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve been up before and, shoot, it’s nothing new for me.’’
With Deion Branch missing the game because of a groin injury suffered against the Redskins, someone had to step up for quarterback Tom Brady, and it was Aaron Hernandez.
The second-year tight end, who quietly has had a productive season, had a career day, with nine receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.
“Aaron is a heck of a player; he’s tough to cover one-on-one,’’ receiver Wes Welker said. “He’s a big mismatch for a lot of defenses, so getting him involved and making plays was huge for us.’’
Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who was teammates with Hernandez at Florida, was highly complimentary of the tight end.
“I wish he didn’t do that against us, but good for him. He’s a great kid and a great player,’’ Tebow said. “I’m so proud of him and how hard he’s worked and what he’s overcome. I guess you could say New England is smart for taking him [in the draft], but they also waited until the fourth round, so a lot of teams passed on a great player.’’
Leading up to the game, Brady raved about Denver’s pass-rushing ability, especially Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. He may have thrown for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a Patriots’ win, but Brady won’t soon forget the lick he took from Dumervil, who sacked Brady hard in the fourth quarter, lifting the quarterback off his feet with a solid shot to the chest.
“They had a few sacks, didn’t they? They got me pretty good on one,’’ Brady said. “I was looking to throw to Rob [Gronkowski] in the slot, and didn’t see Elvis coming. He got me pretty good, but we really answered the next time we got the ball, which was important.’’
Would Dumervil’s sack, Brady was asked, rank on the list of hardest hits he’s ever received?
“Hits? Oh yeah,’’ Brady said. “You’ve got one of the best pass-rushers in the league, he gets a clean shot. He got me pretty good. I’ll be feeling that one tomorrow morning.’’
Jerod Mayo will be staying with the Patriots for several more years after finalizing a five-year contract extension that will keep him with the team through 2017. A league source told the Globe that the linebacker’s deal, which begins in 2013 (his rookie contract goes through 2012), totals $50 million, with $27 million in bonuses and guaranteed money.
“I just feel fortunate to be here another five years. I thank Mr. [Robert] Kraft and the Kraft family, my family, coach [Bill] Belichick, and Floyd [Reese, the Patriots’ senior football adviser/salary cap guru] for getting it done,’’ Mayo said.
“I’m excited to be here for another five years.’’
Asked why he decided to sign more than a year before his contract was set to expire, the 25-year-old, who led New England with eight tackles yesterday, said, “I didn’t want to go through the drama and I love it here. I love playing for New England and it’s a great place. They treat me well.’’
Belichick, who frequently lauds Mayo, expressed pleasure at the deal being done.
“It’s great to have him,’’ the coach said. “He’s a defensive captain, has been since his second year in the league. He’s a good football player, good leader, really takes a lot of pride in what he does and makes the players around him better. So it’s great to have him with us for some more years.’’
Welker inches up
Because of Hernandez’s big day, Welker had a relatively quiet day for him, with four catches for 41 yards, though he did have a potential diving, slide-over-the-goal-line touchdown taken off the board when a review of the play showed that he had been touched down by a Broncos player a foot from the goal line.
However, the four grabs were enough to push Welker up the Patriots career receptions list. He now has 536 regular-season catches in a New England uniform (just 75 games), good for second in team history. He passed Stanley Morgan (534) yesterday, and is only 11 receptions from tying Troy Brown’s team mark of 557.
Welker now has 104 catches for a career-high 1,380 yards on the year. With two games to play, he is in striking distance of Randy Moss’s team record for a season of 1,493 yards, set in 2007.
Rings of honor
Tebow might have been the most talked-about quarterback in the stadium, but four others in attendance yesterday already have something he covets: a Super Bowl win as a starting QB, and they account for seven victories in the Super Bowl.
Brady has won three times as the Patriots starter (2002, 2004, 2005); Denver executive vice president John Elway won back-to-back with the Broncos in 1998-99; Phil Simms, who called the game for CBS, led the Giants to the Super Bowl in 1987; and Trent Dilfer, who works for ESPN and was on hand at the stadium, helped the Ravens win in 2001.
Paxton says hello
Former Patriot Lonie Paxton, who sought out Kraft for a nice pregame exchange and embrace, was one of the Broncos’ captains. Paxton’s bad snap on an extra-point try eluded holder Britton Colquitt, keeping the score 6-0 after a Tebow touchdown on the game’s opening drive . . . After holding the ball for only 4:15 in the first quarter, the Patriots had a huge time of possession advantage in the second quarter, aided by three Broncos fumbles. The Patriots had it for 11:46 of the second quarter, and 33:41 in the game . . . The 20 points scored in the second quarter were the most by the Patriots in any quarter this season, topping the 17 they scored against Philadelphia (second quarter) and the Giants (fourth) . . . The inactives for New England were Branch, Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Sebastian Vollmer, Shane Vereen, Nick McDonald, and Ryan Mallett. Denver played without safety Brian Dawkins, who was inactive along with S David Bruton, LB Mike Mohamed, G Manny Ramirez, OT Tony Hills, TE Julius Thomas, and DE Derrick Harvey.Christopher L. Gasper, Michael Whitmer and Greg A. Bedard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.