Rapid Reaction: Patriots 41, Broncos 23

DENVER -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ 41-23 victory over the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

PatriotsBroncosWhat it means: The Patriots clinch the AFC East championship with the win. Improving to 11-3, they find themselves atop the AFC with Baltimore (10-3) playing Sunday night and Pittsburgh (10-3) on Monday night. Houston lost at home to Carolina to drop to 10-4. Those are the top four teams in the AFC and the Patriots are well positioned for a top playoff seed.

Defensive turnaround: The Patriots had an awful first quarter, giving up 167 rushing yards in the first 15 minutes and falling behind 13-7. The Broncos went up 16-7 early in the second quarter, before the Patriots ripped off the next 20 points. The turnaround was aided by some costly Broncos mistakes (two fumbles on offense, one on special teams) that were turned into 13 points. Credit goes to the Patriots for creating those turnovers. The defense, which looked like the worst in the NFL early, engineered a solid comeback.

Mental toughness on display: All year, the Patriots have proven to be a mentally tough team. That was on display again Sunday after a horrific start defensively. These Patriots might not be the most talented team in the NFL, but they’ve shown that it takes quite a punch to knock them out. No environment or tough situation seems too big for them. Tom Brady also showed his overall toughness. He took a major hit from Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil, lifting him off his feet for a crunching sack, but popped right back up.

Hernandez shines: One week after Rob Gronkowski set the NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end, it was Aaron Hernandez’s turn to shine. He finished with nine receptions for 129 yards and 1 touchdown, with some stellar work after the catch. The Patriots were without No. 2 receiver Deion Branch (groin) in the game and while Chad Ochocinco contributed with a 33-yard touchdown catch and some solid downfield blocking, it was Hernandez who was the No. 1 offensive star.

Andre Carter knee injury: Veteran defensive end Andre Carter left the game on a cart late in the first quarter after clutching his left knee. It didn’t look good and the Patriots announced he would not return. Veteran Mark Anderson played well in Carter’s place with a forced fumble and two sacks. Overall, Anderson was one of the Patriots’ top performers.

Thoughts on Tebow: The Broncos certainly didn’t lose this game because of Tim Tebow, who was up to the challenge in this big game. Tebow’s lost fumble in the second quarter was his big miscue, but he gave the Patriots all they could handle. As a passer, Tebow didn’t look out of place. While he is still growing in that area, he made some nice plays with his arm in this game.

What’s next: The Patriots return home to face the Dolphins on Saturday, Dec. 24 (1 p.m.). The Broncos visit the Bills that day.