For the ninth time in 13 tries, Tom Brady and the Patriots came out on top against Peyton Manning.
This time the circumstances were a little different.
Manning, playing in his first game against the Pats as a Bronco, was typically lethal in picking apart New England’s oft-burned secondary.
Brady, however, got most of his yardage on short routes, letting the running game stomp over the helpless Broncos front seven.
Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead engineered a lethal rushing attack, which accounted for 251 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots beat the Broncos at Gillette Stadium, 31-21.
Defensively, Rob Ninkovich continued his stellar play, forcing two critical fumbles.
Jerod Mayo led the way with 13 tackles, including a sack against Manning.
With the Patriots finally above .500, let’s take a look at this week’s risers and fallers.
1. Rob Ninkovich, DE: For the first three weeks, Rob Ninkovich was neutralized and often invisible. In New England’s back-to-back wins, he’s been superb. The veteran defensive end said he took the commentary about his lackluster play personally and has since concentrated on just beating the man in front of him. With four tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles, he did just that.
2. Wes Welker, WR: So much for phasing No. 83 out of the passing game. Wes Welker was virtually uncoverable for the entire game, racking up 13 catches for 104 yards and his first score. Whatever was going on in Week 1 has clearly been forgotten as New England’s hyper-quick slot machine operated at full capacity against Denver’s secondary.
3. Stevan Ridley/Brandon Bolden/Danny Woodhead, RBs: There’s no way around it: The Patriots are morphing in front of our eyes. For a team that’s made its money in the regular season by throwing all day, this year the focus has shifted back to the ground game. Ridley finished the day with 151 yards on 28 carries, although he had a potentially costly fumble in the fourth quarter. Bolden continues to run hard, break tackles and display good ball security in contact. With Ridley fumbling in consecutive games, his role could expand. Woodhead remains a valuable situational back, picking up big yardage on third downs.
4. Tom Brady, QB: It wasn’t a flawless performance, but anyone who watched this game saw just how extraordinary Brady is in pre-snap manipulation. New England’s star quarterback barked out orders to his receivers and linemen, identified the Mike linebacker, called out audibles and put the team in great situations. Brady didn’t beat Denver deep, but took what was there and was extremely accurate.
1. Devin McCourty, CB: A week after making great plays on the ball, McCourty regressed. His coverage was mostly good, but he still struggles to turn around and locate the football. That failure to play the ball resulted in a costly pass interference, and although he had tight coverage on Eric Decker near the goal line, he overplayed the route and allowed Decker to turn back and score on a back shoulder throw.
2. Pat Chung, S: If New England’s top pick in 2009 continues to play like this, I doubt he’ll be brought back next season. Chung doesn’t necessarily hurt the team, but he doesn’t seem to help much either. He simply doesn’t make impact plays and is often too late to the ball in coverage. I have no doubt he has the physical makeup to be a good safety, but his technique and instincts just aren’t up to par.