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Patriots offense has rarely been better

Aaron Hernandez

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Aaron Hernandez had nine catches for 129 yards on Sunday.

The Patriots are really building something offensively.

We’ve certainly seen better production in other games in terms of yardage. Tom Brady has had better completion percentages and higher passer ratings. The Patriots have run for more yards in other games as well.

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But we’re not sure the Patriots have had a better collective offensive effort, from the line to the running backs to the receivers, than the one they had in Sunday’s 41-23 victory over the Broncos.

It was as if Bill Belichick told his players during the week that they were going to have to out-Bronco the Broncos to win that game. Basically, be better collectively than as individuals.

Because that’s what the Patriots were.

And it had everything to do with what they did away from the ball.

It certainly wasn’t perfect, but all of the blocking - pass, run, and after the catch - was the best the Patriots put together in any other game.

In total, we counted 31 standout blocks by the offense combined. Designating a “plus’’ block is obviously subjective, but it comes down to difficulty: holding blocks at the point of attack, getting to the second level, and for receivers, helping a teammate get extra yardage. And there can be multiple plus blocks on each play.

For reference, in the previous three games the Patriots had 26 such blocks combined as the run blocking really struggled.

But against the Broncos, the Patriots were on point and focused. And winning on the road in a tough environment is about focus as much as anything.

Two plays stood out above the rest.

Stevan Ridley’s 24-yard run in the third quarter was good work by many players.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski sealed the end, left guard Logan Mankins pulled and took out the first Broncos jersey that flashed in front of him, and receiver Wes Welker blocked Champ Bailey. The run became a plus-20 play when rookie right tackle Nate Solder blocked three different players, some by accident. And Ridley finished it off by keeping his legs moving and delivering a great stiffarm to cornerback Chris Harris to gain another 7 yards.

But no Bronco got a clean shot at Ridley. That was a team run.

Same on Danny Woodhead’s touchdown to end the third quarter.

Center Ryan Wendell and left tackle Matt Light set up the play by turning their men away from the hole. That allowed Mankins to take out linebacker D.J. Williams and tight end Aaron Hernandez also did a nice job coming down on Harris.

Woodhead showed great vision darting out and then back into the hole, but he was basically untouched. That doesn’t happen on a run from the 10-yard line up the middle unless the unit was functioning at a high level.

If things are going really well, an offense is going to get blocking from the receivers. That happened in this game.

Gronkowski blocks well in every game, and he had five plus blocks Sunday. Welker will usually stick his head in, which he did three times against the Broncos.

But it’s highly unusual for others to get involved. Maybe it was because Deion Branch was inactive that the group redoubled its efforts. Branch is usually a standout in this area.

Whatever the reason, Chad Ochocinco and Hernandez, neither of whom is known for their blocking, combined to execute five blocks downfield or in the run game.

That’s when you know things are going well.

They are for the Patriots right now offensively - as well as they have all season.

With two games to play, they look to be peaking at the right time.

Here are the unit rankings against the Broncos:

Quarterback Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Building off last week’s effort against the Redskins, Brady is just about at the top of his game right now. The Broncos possess the type of personnel and scheme that have given the Patriots trouble - ability to pressure with four, and to play man cover - but Brady continues to deal with it better in each outing. Brady got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 25 of his 36 dropbacks (69.4 percent). Only unblocked players are getting home in that amount of time. The Broncos rushed three more times (five) than they blitzed in the first half (three). That was a perfect pass by Brady to Welker that covered 19 yards down to the 1-yard line. It’s not easy to fit the ball in against man under (one deep safety with man coverage underneath), especially in the red zone, but that was the throw to make. Of course, Welker’s catch was outstanding. Brady did a great job moving the safety toward Gronkowski with just his eyes toward Gronkowski. It gave him just enough room to get the pass in.

Running backs Rating: 4 out of 5

Danny Woodhead showed great vision and moves and scored his third-quarter touchdown basically untouched.

Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Associated Press

Danny Woodhead showed great vision and moves and scored his third-quarter touchdown basically untouched.

Ridley (65 yards on 11 carries) is doing a better job of making moves while moving forward. Earlier in the season he was moving too much side to side. We could be moving toward some defined postseason roles with Ridley getting more of the carries, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis becoming more of a short-yardage back. You can’t discount his toughness. Woodhead should be the third-down back with Kevin Faulk playing against tougher blitzing teams. That was a really nice play call by Bill O’Brien on Hernandez’s 16-yard run with 12:09 left in the second quarter. It was third and 2, so O’Brien knew he’d get man coverage, and Gronkowski’s wham block on Elvis Dumervil set it up.

Receivers Rating: 4 out of 5

This unit was about a handful of plays away from being flawless (Welker drop, run blocks from Gronkowski and Hernandez, a little bit better route from Ochocinco on the out that went off his hands). It started with Hernandez, who had his best game as a Patriot in terms of receiving and blocking. On second glance, we don’t think Gronkowski’s low production in the pass game had to do with design (he only pass blocked four times) nor scheme (the Broncos didn’t seem to do anything out of the ordinary besides keeping a safety handy - but Brady has thrown to him in that case numerous times). We think the Patriots knew they had a mismatch with Hernandez from the start and went with it. The Patriots love to use Hernandez against man-to-man teams and they got plenty of that. Brady had an easy time deciphering what the Broncos were going to do and he seldom had to come off his first read. Hernandez was outstanding in the open field. The Broncos might have gotten their “7s’’ mixed up on defense on Hernandez’s 1-yard TD catch because three players jumped Solder, No. 77, instead of Gronkowski, No. 87. That left Hernandez wide open once he beat Quinton Carter in man coverage. Gronkowski made Bailey look bad on his 38 yard catch and run.

Offensive line Rating: 4 out of 5

This was the unit’s best effort in a long time, in the run and the pass. The two sacks, four hurries, and one knockdown allowed for seven total quarterback pressures was the lowest of the season. The sack of Brady to end the first drive of the third quarter seemed to be a well-designed blitz by Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. In a perfect world, Mankins passes off his man and picks up the blitzing safety, Carter. But it’s tough to pin that one on Mankins. Sometimes you have to just tip your cap. Dumervil’s de-cleater of Brady was just Solder getting caught. Solder should have slid out and picked up Dumervil. Solder heard it from line coach Dante Scarnecchia after the series. Light gave up just one knockdown against Dumervil as the left tackle continues to play his best against the best. Solder didn’t allow a pressure against impressive rookie Von Miller. Mankins played his best game, perhaps of the season, with five standout blocks and no pressures allowed. Wendell and Brian Waters were also rock steady.

Defensive line Rating: 4 out of 5

The line wasn’t much of a problem in the first quarter when the Broncos were gashing the Patriots in the run, but an adjustment there helped. The Patriots went to much wider line splits (distance between players) as the game went on and that seemed to free up the linebackers a little bit more. It gave the defense better balance in figuring out the option. Standout play by Ron Brace to force the Lance Ball fumble midway through the second quarter. He did a nice job holding up the center, J.D. Walton, and then disengaging when Ball picked the gap he would be going into before Brace popped the ball out. Nice “game’’ run by the Patriots on Mark Anderson’s second sack of the game with 10:07 left. The Patriots sent Jerod Mayo on their only blitz to that point toward the right tackle as Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick each worked the outside shoulder of the guards, forcing them outside. Anderson (two sacks, two hurries, forced fumble) was able to duck into the vacated middle as Mayo took two players with him. Obviously with Andre Carter out for the season, the Patriots are going to need more from Anderson. He can’t just be a change-of-pace guy now.

Linebackers Rating: 2.5 out of 5

This unit had a really tough time in the early going as Rob Ninkovich lost containment twice against the option, and Dane Fletcher and Tracy White got caught a couple times running into the gap. It’s not always bad to be aggressive going into a gap, but you’re going to have to at least make the running back change direction. Both players seemed to get better as the game went along. White must have been exhausted or injured on Ball’s 34-yard catch to the 2-yard line with 9:09 left because he didn’t give much of an effort to attempt the tackle. He was replaced by Gary Guyton, who took a while to change directions on Tim Tebow’s 30-yard run late, after that. The linebackers had five of the Patriots’ 11 missed tackles - and we didn’t even count the times the Patriots couldn’t sack Tebow. Ninkovich had a sack and four hurries, but they all came late in the game.

Secondary Rating: 2 out of 5

Well, the Matthew Slater experiment didn’t last long. After 10 plays, in which he missed two tackles and took a few bad angles, the receiver/safety was replaced by Sergio Brown for the rest of the game. Hard to blame Brown for the 39-yard completion on third and 18 with 9:40 left. He did have deep responsibility for Eric Decker while the Patriots played Tampa 2 with Mayo dropping deep down the middle. You just don’t expect Tebow to complete that pass. In addition to Slater’s two, the secondary missed five tackles overall. Kyle Arrington should have jumped that 14-yard out that Tebow threw to Demaryius Thomas. Arrington was in perfect position, he just broke late.

Special teams Rating: 4.5 out of 5

A nice performance out of this group all-around. The Patriots didn’t need Julian Edelman on defense in this one, so he was able to put his energy to better use on special teams, with three tackles. It looks like his playing time on defense has given him more confidence. Slater had another outstanding punt tackle thanks to a Zoltan Mesko boomer that had 5.07 seconds of hang time. Mesko did have one below-average punt (3.96) for him. Stephen Gostkowski liked the thin air in Colorado as his kickoffs were outstanding and resulted in just 17.8 yards on the four of seven that were returned.

PLAY OF THE GAME

Situation: Patriots were leading, 17-16, with 4:41 left in the second quarter when the Broncos had first and 10 at their own 45-yard line.

What happened: The Patriots were in their nickel package (five defensive backs) with much wider splits (distance between players) than normal in order to have better spacing against the Broncos option. Receiver Eddie Royal (19) motioned into the backfield as the tailback at the snap. Quarterback Tim Tebow (15) is supposed to read the end, Mark Anderson (95), to determine what to do next.

If Anderson sits and reads the play, Tebow is supposed to hand the ball off to the dive back, Jeremiah Johson (37). Anderson takes a step toward Johnson, so Tebow kept the ball. But Anderson actually went right for Tebow, knocked the ball away, and recovered the fumble. Patriots could have been in trouble had Tebow handed off to Johnson or pitched to Royal. But Anderson’s quickness made the play, and a crucial one at that. Patriots turned the turnover into a touchdown.

ON HIS GAME

Aaron Hernandez, tight end

The second-year player had the best game of his career. Not only did he set career highs with nine catches and 129 yards, and added a 16-yard run, but he also contributed blocking, which is where he normally struggles. Hernandez was a force in the open field as he broke four tackles for an additional 61 yards.

OFF HIS GAME

Dane Fletcher, linebacker

There weren’t many overwhelming candidates for this distinction this week but it’s hard to overlook that the middle inside linebacker had just one tackle against an option team. Fletcher got caught twice peeking into a gap, but was there to make the tackle on Ron Brace’s forced fumble. Fletcher also recovered the muffed punt. So he wasn’t terrible.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.
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