DENVER - Tim Tebow and the Broncos came out swinging yesterday and landed more than a couple of blows, but the Patriots overcame their early wooziness, fighting back in the second quarter as they eventually extended their own win streak and ended the Broncos’, 41-23.
In the process, the Patriots clinched their ninth AFC East title of the Bill Belichick era, and players happily donned the hats and T-shirts they found in their lockers, posing for pictures that they quickly sent out to the world via Twitter.
“It never gets old,’’ a smiling Vince Wilfork said of winning a third straight division title. “We work so hard the whole year to get to this step, and this is just one of the steps, hopefully. Division champs, that’s awesome. We’ve had a lot of games where we had to fight and battle our tails off, but guys never gave up.’’
Yesterday was the perfect example. Denver gashed the Patriots early, totaling 167 rushing yards in the first quarter alone - New England gave up a season-high 170 for the game against Washington a week before - which led to two touchdowns and the Broncos holding the ball for nearly 11 of the opening 15 minutes.
But the Patriots rebounded, making defensive adjustments and moving the ball on offense, never letting up, mindful that few teams in the league are as capable of staging a big comeback as the Tebow-led Broncos.
Willis McGahee picked up 19 yards during the Broncos’ opening drive, and little-used back Jeremiah Johnson gained 25. Tebow scored from 9 yards out to get Denver on the board.
However, former Patriot Lonie Paxton, who joined the Broncos as a free agent in 2009, had a rare bad snap on the extra point. It hit the ground, and went down as a failed 2-point conversion.
New England responded with a five-play, 80-yard TD drive that featured a 46-yard catch-and-run from Aaron Hernandez, who saw his number called quite a bit with Rob Gronkowski asked to block more with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller on the opposite side of the ball.
The touchdown was scored by Chad Ochocinco, who was wide open on a 33-yard connection - it was his first time in the end zone as a member of the Patriots. He held off on doing one of the touchdown celebrations that he once was known for, though he did keep the ball.
Denver’s first TD drive was nine plays, but its second was just four covering 82 yards, and included a negative play. On the first snap, McGahee slipped through tackles for a 29-yard gain; on the second, Lance Ball was dropped for a 1-yard loss, but on second down, Demaryius Thomas turned a short reception into a 22-yard pickup.
Ball got another shot and ran clear through the right side of the Patriots defense, nearly untouched for 30 yards - it wasn’t until Devin McCourty got to him near the goal line that someone got a hand on him, but Ball’s momentum took him over the goal line.
Making matters worse for the Patriots, they lost Andre Carter to injury on the final play of the quarter: at the end of a Ball run to his side, Carter went to the grass clutching his left knee and had to be carted off the field. A league source said Carter needs quad-related surgery, which could mean that his season is over, though there was no word from the team about the severity of his injury.
Denver added a field goal on its next possession for a 16-7 lead early in the second.
“We don’t see that every week,’’ McCourty said of the Broncos’ option offense. “We were discussing it on the sideline. We were able to stop plays that they tried to repeat.’’
When the first quarter ended, so did many of New England’s issues, and the problems began in the second quarter for the Broncos: They fumbled the ball three times, two of them forced by the Patriots, and all were recovered by the visitors.
The offense turned the turnovers into 13 points, as New England’s 9-point deficit became an 11-point lead at halftime.
Ron Brace was credited with the first forced fumble, knocking the ball out of Ball’s hand. Rob Ninkovich pounced on it and the Patriots took over at the Denver 19. Despite the short field, New England had to settle for a field goal.
A smiling Brace, who celebrated his 25th birthday yesterday, said, “It was a nice feeling. It was my first time making a nice play since I’ve been back [he began the season on the PUP list]. I was able to help the team out in a game that matters.’’
On the Broncos’ next possession, it was Mark Anderson who forced - and recovered - the fumble, smacking the ball out of Tebow’s hand. Once again starting in Denver territory, Tom Brady made the call to throw on fourth and 1, finding Hernandez for a 25-yard gain.
Two plays later, the quarterback scored on a keeper from a yard out. He punctuated the touchdown with a Gronkowski-esque spike, which he explained happened because he doesn’t get into the end zone too often.
Broncos return man Quan Cosby, who had problems all day, muffed a Zoltan Mesko punt in the closing seconds of the half, with the kick going right through his hands. Dane Fletcher claimed the loose ball for New England at the Denver 16.
With three seconds left on the clock, the Patriots took the free 3 points, on a 34-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
New England took the lead for good in that 15-minute span, with each area of the team contributing.
“This was a real good win for our football team. Give the players all the credit,’’ said Belichick, who did not want to single out any player. “They did a real good job today against a good football team. We fought back and made plenty of plays to win in all three phases of the game.
“I’m just really proud of the way we responded to the challenge. They stepped up and played good football today. Really happy about the win.’’
The Patriots scored in the third quarter, aided by a 15-yard facemask penalty on Denver’s Ryan McBean that gave them first down from the Broncos’ 14. Danny Woodhead took the ball in from 10 yards out for his first touchdown of the season.
Since it was Tebow at quarterback for the Broncos, they made things interesting, closing within 34-23 with 8:41 left in the game with a couple of big plays by Tebow.
But New England scored again to put the game out of reach.
Brady was 23 for 34 for 320 yards and two touchdowns; he did, however, take one brutal hit from Dumervil off the right side in the second half.
“I was looking to throw the ball up in the slot and didn’t see Elvis coming,’’ Brady said. “He got me pretty good. When one of the best pass-rushers in the league gets a clean shot, it’s going to hurt.’’
But Brady bounced up from the hit, just as the Patriots bounced back from their early issues to deliver the knockout punch and claim yet another division title.