By: Bob George/
January 15, 2012

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Patriots notebook: Season starts with Houston at Foxboro

FOXBOROUGH -- Maybe about August, it will be okay to hear the words "Tim" and "Tebow" again. But for now, let's knock off, shall we?

If not for two Patriot turnovers, Tebow would have been completely whitewashed on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots came out, the three-game playoff losing streak looming like the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, and literally blew Tebow and the Denver Broncos out of the stadium. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski flirted with the NFL record book, the defense pounded Denver with one negative play after another, and the Patriots got back in the January win column with a 45-10 pounding of the Broncos in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. The Patriots will host the AFC Championship Game next Sunday against the winner of the Houston-Baltimore game on Sunday.

Brady threw six touchdown passes in the game, equaling the record set by Oakland's Daryl Lamonica and San Francisco's Steve Young (set in Super Bowl XXIX). Gronkowski tied the NFL record for most touchdown catches with three (Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez had the other three). All night long, Brady methodically and brutally dismantled the Bronco defense, and only a Brady interception and a Stevan Ridley fumble cut into what was arguably the best offensive effort by the Patriots in team postseason history. The 45 points scored set a Patriot record for most points scored in a postseason game.

The Patriots got going right off the bat, and led 7-0 before everyone got settled into their seats. A modified end around with Aaron Hernandez lined up in the backfield went for 43 yards and set the tone for the rest of the evening. Brady hit Welker for a touchdown from seven yards out on the next play, and the Patriots had the lead with just under two minutes gone in the game. Hernandez turned out to be the leading Patriot rusher with 61 yards on five carries; it is fitting that he was the leading receiver in Denver when these two teams met last month, and the leading rusher in the playoff rematch.

It didn't take long for the Patriots to expand the lead. Six plays into their first offensive drive, Rob Ninkovich strip-sacked Tebow at the Patriot 41, and Brandon Spikes, Tebow's former teammate at Florida, fell on the loose football. Seven plays later, Brady found Gronkowski from 17 yards out on a diving catch in the end zone. Replay was needed to confirm the touchdown as Gronkowski seemed to allow the nose of the football to touch the ground during the catch. But referee Gene Steratore allowed the call on the field to stand, realizing that any possible bobble by Gronkowski was not conclusive enough to overturn the call.

Leading 14-0, the Patriots missed a chance to bury Denver early, and fans began to have Jet flashbacks. On the fifth play of their third offensive drive, facing first and ten at the Patriot 25, Brady had Gronkowski in a crossing pattern over the middle. But Brady badly overthrew the tall tight end and hit Quentin Carter right between the 2 and the 8 perfectly. Four plays later, on the first play of the second quarter, Willis McGahee ran it in from five yards out to make it 14-7 Patriots. But Brady had once again thrown a bad pick in a playoff game, and fans could rightly believe that the Patriots were heading towards another defeat comparable to the Jet loss last year.

But this year would be different. The Patriot defense was in high gear, and Brady got over the pick real quick. Tebow was contained for most of the evening save for one scramble which went for 14 yards. The option game was consistently stuffed by the Patriots, especially Rob Ninkovich, who showed a great deal of speed and ability to contain most anything to the outside. The Patriots forced 15 plays for losses on the Broncos, and Tebow was sacked five times for 28 yards lost. McGahee managed 76 yards rushing, but other than that there was no Bronco who could get anything going on offense. The containment of Tebow and the option game was perhaps the biggest key in the Patriots winning the game, as it neutralized the Brady pick and allowed him to bounce back and stick several daggers into the Broncos all evening long.

The game was pretty much decided in the final two minutes of the first half. Brady found Deion Branch on a nifty 61-yard sideline touch pass for a touchdown to give the Pats a 28-7 lead at the two-minute warning. After failing to run clock on the ensuing possession on a three-and-out, Brady got the ball back with 1:09 left in the half. With five seconds left in the half, Brady found Gronkowski from 19 yards out to make it 35-7 going into the intermission. It was pretty much school out at that point, a wonderful turnaround from the last two playoff games here in Foxborough.

Brady's final numbers were 26 of 34 passing for 363 yards and a passer rating of 137.6. Gronkowski had ten catches for 145 yards. Hernandez had 116 all-purpose yards, but suffered a head injury late in the game on a goal line play with the game already way out of hand and had to come out of the game and get checked out for a concussion. He seemed perfectly all right in a postgame interview and on the sidelines at game's end.

The Patriots wind up with their first postseason win over Denver in team history. These teams met in 2005 and the Broncos won, 27-13 in Denver in the game where Champ Bailey returned a pick 100 yards but failed to score a touchdown thanks to Ben Watson. Suffice it to say that this game (in which both Brady and Bailey played) more than made up for that loss which turned out to be Brady's first postseason loss of his career.

Granted, Tebow is still learning the pro game and no one really knows what he is or isn't capable of. Still, this had to be a galvanizing moment for the Patriot defense. Whether they face Houston or Baltimore in next week's AFC title game, they know that if they can contain Tebow this well under these conditions, they should do well against either Arian Foster or Ray Rice. Neither Joe Flacco nor T.J. Yates will remind the Patriots of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Matthew Stafford. The Patriots will need to be primarily concerned about run defense next week, not pass defense, and that will bode well for the Patriots if they rise up and play with the same intensity they played with against Denver.

But the Patriots are at least off the playoff schnide. They are back in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the epic 16-0 season of 2007. The game will be played in Foxborough. Sleep well, everyone, watch the other AFC Divisional Playoff tomorrow, and get ready for some more good January football in New England.

And be thankful that their guys have Tebow, and your guys have Brady.