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Saturday, January 14, 2012
3 up, 3 down for the Patriots

By Mike Reiss

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Usually, there is look at three players whose performance was "up" at first glance, and three players who were at the opposite end of the spectrum. But after a performance like the Patriots put forth Saturday night, the picture is altered:

Up
Tom Brady
-- Quarterback starts fast, sails an interception on the third drive and is almost picked on the fourth march, before stepping on the gas pedal and igniting the Patriots' charge. His six touchdown passes ties an NFL playoff record.

Defensive front-7 & pass rush -- After some early struggles against the run, the unit settles down and holds the Broncos in check, and then delivers some consistent pressure in obvious passing situations. Defensive end/outside linebacker Mark Anderson plays big.

Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez -- Can't talk about one tight end without the other. Gronkowski is a beast, his three first-half touchdown receptions tying the NFL postseason record, while Hernandez's versatility helps the Patriots play fast in a 3 WR/2 TE package in which he's used across the formation and comes up with some big catches and runs.

Zoltan Mesko -- Punter delivers one of the unsung plays of the game in the second quarter, with a punt that rolled out of bounds at the 5. After a three-and-out, the Patriots work on a shorter field and score a touchdown to go up 21-7 and never look back.

Rob Ninkovich -- A Mike Vrabel-type performance. The outside linebacker/defensive end has a strip sack early that sets up a touchdown as the Patriots go up 14-0. He also drops Willis McGahee for a 2-yard loss, consistently plays the option well in showing discipline, and later adds a half-sack. 

Offensive line -- Blockers up front often have little help as the Patriots go up-tempo with the 3 WR/2 TE package and they win the battle up front, giving Tom Brady the time to throw. When Brady has time, he is often lethal.

NOTE: Rookie running back Stevan Ridley, who lost a third-quarter fumble, is spared a spot in the "down" category based on the overwhelming result. Patrick Chung's unnecessary roughness penalty in the third quarter also is "overlooked" based on the large margin of victory.