Patriots' report card vs. Broncos
Many good and a few not-so-good things here. On the plus end, the decision to make heavy use of the no-huddle paid dividends for the offense, which had the Broncos' hand for much of the game. In the down column, Bill Belichick lost his second challenge of the season, while some could question the decision to go for it on 4th-and-5 in the fourth quarter, instead of trying to pin the Broncos with a punt.
It wasn't the flashiest of passing displays, with the running game taking such a large load in the game. Tom Brady was very accurate (23-for-31, a 75-percent completion rate), and did not throw any interceptions. The knock here is in pass protection, where Brady was sacked four times. Like ball security, not protecting Brady will be more costly in closer games where Brady can't connect with receivers as well as he did on Sunday.
This unit has been historically strong in their last two games, tallying 251 yards on 51 carries on Sunday. Battling a knee injury, rookie Brandon Bolden dipped slightly from his performance last week, while Stevan Ridley was the rock (28 carries, 151 yards). However, it was Ridley's fumble late in the fourth quarter that keeps this unit from getting a better grade. Ball security is paramount, and will lose games where the running game isn't so dominant.
There were multiple personnel shifts across this unit that could have affected the way they played on Sunday, but their performance was again up-and-down. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was 31-for-44 (70 percent completion rate) for 345 yards and three touchdowns and the Denver offense was able to move the ball at will at times, especially late in the game. In the end, it was enough to win, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, beginning with consistency.
This unit is getting back to where it was in the first two games of the season, after a down performance in Baltimore. The Broncos didn't even try to establish the running game, beginning the game in their 2 TE/3 WR package, without a running back. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich forcing Willis McGahee to fumble in the red zone was a key play late in the game.
This was a game filled with fair catches on punts and touchbacks on kickoffs, so there were some positives from kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko, and their respective coverage units. On the flip-side, the Patriots' kick return game continues to struggle, ranked 32nd in the NFL in longest kick return (28 yards, their first return of the season). Rookie Nate Ebner, who was pulled from the punt unit after allowing a blocked punt in Week 2, returned to the unit on Sunday following an injury to Tracy White, and was immediately flagged for a 10-yard holding penalty.