Bend-Don't-Break Redefined In Denver

The New England Patriots cruised to an 18-point win on Sunday (41-23), but only after giving up ridiculous yardage in the first quarter. It's all part of the plan, or at least that's the way it looks.

Defense stiffens after early scare in Denver

   The most important thing these days is that New England continues to do what it's supposed to do down the stretch by beating inferior teams. That continued Sunday with a 41-23 win over the Broncos in Denver.

   The victory allowed the Patriots (11-3) to clinch the AFC East title. It also put the team a step closer to ending the year with the best record in the AFC and a chance to earn a bye as one of the top two seeds in the conference playoffs.

   Eighteen-point road wins should be reason for celebration for a team that appears well on its way toward winning at least 13 games for the third time in the last five years.

   However, Sunday's game was another less-than-stellar performance for the New England defense. Tim Tebow may have run out of victory magic, but he did put an early scare in Bill Belichick's troops. Denver rushed for 167 yards in the first quarter -- the most ever given up by a Belichick defense in any quarter -- and held a 16-7 lead in the second quarter.

   That's when the opportunistic New England defense -- which came in tied for the most takeaways in the AFC -- forced a pair of fumbles in a four-play stretch in second quarter, helping the Patriots flip the momentum to go to the locker room with the 27-16 advantage on the way toward victory.

   "We always talk about turnovers, and turnovers are huge, especially as far as wins and losses are concerned," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Turnovers were huge (against Denver)."

   Sure, the offense is still putting up 30 or 40 points each week, but concerns remain about a defense that continues to allow 20-plus points and 400-plus yards with alarming regularity. If those takeaways dry up, it could be a major problem.

   The defense may not get tested much over the final two regular-season weekends, as New England plays host to the Dolphins and Bills. But beyond that, what's been good enough against the likes of the Colts, Redskins and Broncos may not be good enough in January.

   "We never give up," defensive co-captain Vince Wilfork said. "The more we fight, the better this team gets. It could do us some good justice to continue to fight."

   The way things have looked for the defense for the first 14 games, the unit is going to have to.

   LINEUP WATCH: With Andre Carter being carted off with a leg injury Sunday afternoon in Denver, the Patriots lost one of their most productive, consistent playmakers from the defensive front. Carter, who leads New England with 10 sacks, has played nearly every snap at right defensive end all season, and his absence moving forward leaves a large hole to fill. Mark Anderson and recently re-signed Mark Anderson will be leaned on to help in the pass rush, while Brandon Deaderick, Ron Brace and Shawn Ellis may see more action against the run to help pick up the slack after losing the well-rounded defender Carter.

   BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Number of 300-yard games Tom Brady has recorded this season, including his 320-yard effort in Sunday's win at Denver. Brady now has 4,593 yards on the season, and he needs 492 yards in the final two weeks to break Dan Marino's NFL-record of 5,084 yards, although Drew Brees (4,780) is also well on his way to breaking the mark.

   --S Patrick Chung missed his sixth straight game with a foot injury. His status was downgraded to "out" prior to New England's trip to Denver.
   --LB Brandon Spikes missed his sixth straight game due to a knee injury.
   --RT Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) was downgraded to "out" prior to the Patriots flying to Denver. He missed his third straight game due to injury and his eighth overall on the season.
   --WR Deion Branch, out with a groin injury, missed a game for the first time this season.
   --RB Shane Vereen was inactive due to a hamstring injury.
   --QB Ryan Mallett and OL Donald Thomas were New England's other inactives on the day, both healthy scratches.
   --DE Andre Carter left the first half of Sunday's win with a seemingly serious left leg injury, getting carted off the field in Denver. Initial reports indicated that the injury would require surgery and likely end Carter's first season in New England.
   --LB Jerod Mayo reached an agreement with the team on a five-year contract extension through 2017 that's worth a reported $48 million and could include as much as $27 million in guarantees.

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