Patriots corral Tim Tebow, Broncos
Much-maligned defense seems to be coming together at opportune time
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Taking the cue of defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, the performance of the New England Patriots' defense in Saturday night's decisive 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos can be summed up in one word: Pop!
They Pats swarmed and attacked, stunting regularly at the line of scrimmage. They started fast and finished strong. They played with energy and confidence.
In other words, this didn't closely resemble the porous unit that was maddening to watch at times over the 2011 regular season. Anyone else wondering where this was all season?
"Each week you come in and work hard," Wilfork said, "and you never know when it's going to pop for you."
It popped, all right, bursting the Tim Tebow hype machine in the process. If the defense can duplicate this type of effort two more times, maybe, just maybe
OK, OK, let's not get ahead of ourselves, but there was a lot to like Saturday night, even if it was against one of the NFL's more offensively challenged teams. After all, the Patriots have made worse offenses look pretty darn good.
It started in the first quarter, when outside linebacker/defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who wears Mike Vrabel's old No. 50, did his best Vrabel impersonation by bending around the left end for a decisive strip-sack that was recovered and converted into a touchdown for an early 14-0 lead. That was the first of five sacks, as the Patriots battered Tebow both in the passing and running games.
But even that doesn't tell the whole story.
The same defense that was gashed for 167 rushing yards in the first quarter against the Broncos on Dec. 18 was much more disciplined and stout against the unique option attack, once again led by the unheralded Ninkovich, the six-year veteran who has emerged as a frontline contributor this season. Holding the Broncos to 3-of-8 on third-down tries in the first half helped open a 35-7 halftime lead, sparking what was basically a raucous Gillette Stadium party for the final 30 minutes.
Considering the lone points allowed in the first half came after a Tom Brady interception in which the Broncos were set up at the New England 24, one couldn't have asked for more from the much-maligned D.
"The main thing is guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys don't believe what we're capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way," said Wilfork, who tied with Ninkovich for the team lead with 1.5 sacks. "In the postseason, everything is elevated. We don't want to be good. We want to be great, especially at this time. You want to be able to make the game-changing plays and great situational plays."
They did all that, and with a fiery approach that saw veteran lineman Gerard Warren bring down Tebow for a 6-yard loss on play-action in the second quarter, then reach his arms in front of him and bring his hands together for a University of Florida gator chomp. It was Gator eating Gator.
Defenders fed off that emotion -- inside linebacker Brandon Spikes brought a lot of it in his return to the lineup -- which they now say has become a big part of their identity.
"We're an energetic defense. Everybody is hyped up, making plays," said veteran Mark Anderson, a hybrid end in a 4-3 defense who stands up at outside linebacker in a 3-4 look. "It's just fun."
In truth, it hasn't been that fun to watch for long stretches of the season. But perhaps the Patriots are pulling a similar turnaround as the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who were gashed by the run in the regular season before flipping a switch in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl championship. It was like watching two different Colts defenses that year.
"When you come to the playoffs, it's a fresh start," said Anderson, who played almost the entire game as a stand-up outside linebacker in more of a 3-4 alignment, a game plan that gave the Patriots the best chance to keep Tebow in the pocket with Anderson and Ninkovich as the edge men.
"All that stuff is in the past and the regular season doesn't matter. It's about what we do now. Two more games, and the approach is one game at a time and ball out. Anything is possible."
What Broncos coach John Fox saw from the Patriots' defense Saturday was more movement on the interior, with Wilfork, second-year lineman Kyle Love and others twisting and slanting against center J.D. Walton and guards Russ Hochstein and Zane Beadles. That approach helped New England control the line of scrimmage most of the night.
Meanwhile, Tebow (9-of-26 for 136 yards) saw a mix of coverages that he said made it hard to get things clicking, with the Patriots subbing cornerback Sterling Moore for safety James Ihedigbo when the Broncos brought on an extra receiver.
For the Patriots, it was one of the first times all year in which one looked at the defense and saw a cohesive unit that almost perfectly complemented the offense and special teams.
Maybe they're coming together at the right time. Or maybe it was more a result of playing an overmatched foe. Either way, defenders were rightfully sky-high afterward.
"It's kind of like one big family on defense and that's what you need in the playoffs, everyone on the same page, everyone doing their job," said Anderson, the six-year veteran who joined the Patriots in the preseason after four years with the Bears and one with the Texans. "It was fun out there."
And fun to watch, too, with a little extra pop.
How many times have we said that about the Patriots' D this season?
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.