By: Bob George/
December 18, 2011

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DENVER -- It was strange, the Patriots leading the Denver Broncos by 18 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and you seemed that Tim Tebow had the Patriots right where he wanted them.

And it looked like Tebow would pull off another miracle, converting a 3rd and 18 situation and two plays later rushing for a touchdown to pull the Broncos to within 34-23. Bronco fans had to be thinking "déjà vu", that still another scintillating rally was in the offing.

But the Patriots are not the Chicago Bears, Tom Brady is not Caleb Hanie, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is not Marion Barber. The Patriots put the game away with a subsequent touchdown drive, capped off by a Green-Ellis one-yard run, and the Patriots held on for a 41-23 win at Sports Authority Field.

The victory clinched the AFC East title for the Patriots, though the Jets losing to Philadelphia would have accomplished the same had Tebow pulled off another rally. This was only the third win in Denver for the Patriots in the last 43 years, but it was by far the most convincing of the three. The Patriots, who themselves rallied from an early nine-point deficit, capitalized on numerous Bronco errors, overcame an early gashing by Bronco rushers (including Tebow), and overcame a game-ending knee injury by Andre Carter to play perhaps their best game of the season on defense.

Brady showed Tebow who is still the class of the AFC, but if you had to give away a game ball, you would have to pick Aaron Hernandez. With the Broncos putting the clamps on both Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker, Hernandez came up huge for the Patriots with nine catches for 129 yards and one touchdown. Brady went to Hernandez continually in the clutch, and the "other tight end" was able to get open and make critical grabs to keep drives open. Hernandez, who is slightly quicker than Gronkowski and still very much a matchup problem, showed his value to the team despite Gronkowski having the record breaking season.

But like Chicago made mistakes last week to make it look like Tebow look like a hero, mistakes did in Denver big time. The Broncos had three lost fumbles and one very potentially costly penalty coming when the Patriots had third down and 24 at their own six-yard line. The fumbles were converted into 13 points by the Patriots.

One play which encapsulated the day for the Broncos came at the end of the first half. The Patriots, with 14 seconds left in the second quarter and perched at their own 49, eschewed a 67-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski and punted the ball. The field goal would have set an NFL record, but in the thin air of Denver it is not out of the question for a kicker like Gostkowski to at least be allowed to try it. Instead of letting the ball simply drop at the Denver 12, Quan Cosby tried to catch the ball. He muffed it, Dane Fletcher recovered, and Gostkowski was able to launch a 34-yarder as time expired. It was three points that Denver foolishly surrendered, and Cosby was pulled from return duty in the second half.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Broncos lost two fumbles in four plays. Lance Ball, who in the first quarter bludgeoned the Patriots for a 32-yard touchdown, was hit by Ron Brace and coughed up the football on their fourth offensive play of the quarter. Rob Ninkovich fell on the loose ball, and six plays later Gostkowski nailed a 21-yard field goal to put the Patriots ahead to stay at 17-16.

Three plays into the next drive, Tebow tried to scramble up the middle, but was hit by Mark Anderson and put the pig on the ground. Anderson made the recovery, and the Patriots went 40 yards in six plays, capped by a Brady one-yard plunge to make it 24-16.

The Patriots suffered a potentially damaging loss on the final play of the first quarter. Carter was hit from the side trying to make a tackle on Ball for a two-yard gain and blew his knee out. The Patriots were typically not forthcoming with details other than he would not return to the game. Yet the Patriots would wind up with four sacks of Tebow, and surrendered only 112 yards of total offense after the first quarter.

The run defense suffered a thrashing early on. The Broncos totaled 252 yards in the ground and an 8.1 yard per carry average. Tebow wound up with 93 yards rushing, former Buffalo Bill/Baltimore Raven Willis McGahee had 70 yards on seven carries, and Ball had 64 yards on 11 carries. After the first quarter, the Patriots appeared to load up on the line and dare Tebow to beat them through the air. Other than the one touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, the adjustment worked wonderfully as Ball was never a factor again, McGahee got hurt, and Tebow was nonfactorial other than a 30-yard scramble in garbage time.

With the score 34-16 Patriots to start the fourth quarter, the Broncos took off on a curious drive which made some observers wonder if Tebow would pull off another crazy rally. Facing third down and 18 at the Denver 25, Tebow caught the Patriot defense napping on three straight plays. Tebow dropped back and was able to find Julius Thomas down the right sideline for 39 yards as Sergio Brown was too late in safety help. On the next play, Tebow found Ball on a short dump pass in the left flat, and Ball was able to scamper to the Patriot 2 for 34 yards. Tebow took it the final two yards on the next play to make it 34-23 as the stadium shook.

But the supposed comeback was not to be. Brady hit Gronkowski for 38 yards on the second play of the next drive. Then a 22-yard strike to Hernandez got the Patriots to the Bronco 1. Three plays and 1:20 later, Green-Ellis ran it in for the final score of the game.

Thanks to Houston losing to Carolina, the Patriots can get the two seed and a first round bye guaranteed if they win out. The Patriots have home division matchups with Miami and Buffalo left. They would lose a tiebreaker with Baltimore if they both finish 13-3 due to common opponents. But the Patriots will take the first round bye anyday, even though the top seed last year did them no good.

The Patriots will also take the rare win in Denver, a chance to put down the Tebow-mania, and a chance to celebrate still another division title. 2012 may not be a happy new year for the Patriots, but chances are that the Patriots will have a very Merry Christmas.