Patriots' defense figured it out

DENVER -- Things were falling apart for the New England Patriots' defense. The unit was getting gashed in the much-anticipated matchup against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.

The Broncos had 167 rushing yards -- in the first quarter.

That's how bad it was.

It was time for rattled players to keep their composure, for coaches to adjust, and that's what happened in the defining moments of the Patriots' 41-23 victory that clinched the AFC East championship.

After the brutal start, things the Patriots had worked on leading into the game were scrapped. A new plan was put in place, with players crediting Matt Patricia, who essentially serves as the unit's coordinator without the title.

"The schemes they were running and the way we were playing it, it wasn't working," outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich explained. "We had to change what our philosophy was."

The change involved the spacing in which the defense played.

When the game began, players explained the Patriots were playing with even spacing (more of a traditional 4-3), which is when the offensive tackles and center are uncovered. They switched to odd spacing (closer to a 3-4 alignment), in which the guards are uncovered.

When a change like that is made, it alters which players are in the "bubbles." The Patriots' switch meant linebackers would be in the "bubbles" instead of defensive linemen.

This helped the Patriots combat how the Broncos were attacking them, Denver totaling just 68 rushing yards on 16 carries after the 167-yard first quarter.

"We were in a little more odd spacing to try to keep the leverage on the formation," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They gave us a lot of shifting early in the game, a lot of shifting and motion, so we were able to settle down for a combination of reasons. One of them was just to balance out the defense and help us a little bit."

Part of the problem was on the edges of the defense. The Patriots had talked all week about keeping Tebow in the pocket, but they were having trouble hemming him in.

The scheme change, which had defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson standing up in more of an outside linebacker role, fixed that.

"They wanted to test our force. They had a couple runs on our force," Ninkovich said. "We had to adjust some of the things we were doing and take away those options runs, and with the option, just be more aggressive with the quarterback.

"Give Tebow credit, he's obviously a great runner. He made some really good plays as far as keeping everything alive and keeping it going. We knew going into the game that he had that ability. He's very talented getting out of the pocket and getting things going. I'm not going to take anything away from him."

Tebow, who generated tremendous media buzz before the game, was solid. Broncos coach John Fox said he didn't question Tebow's ability to go against a top quarterback such as Tom Brady, who was sensational. "I don't think that's why we lost the game," Fox said.

Tebow wasn't the Broncos' main problem; it was a combination of physical and mental errors.
The Broncos' three second-quarter turnovers resulted in 13 New England points as the Patriots erased a 16-7 deficit to lead 27-16 at halftime.

The turnaround, which was even more impressive when considering the Patriots did it without the injured Carter, shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have followed Belichick's team closely this season.

Even in their losses, they've exhibited a steel-minded mental toughness. If a team is going to knock them out, it's going to have to be a hard punch, and that's one of the best things the Patriots have going for them heading into the playoffs.

"We take our cue from our head coach," Brady said. "Sometimes when things don't go right, you have to persevere. You have to keep fighting and our team has really shown we can do that over the course of the season."

Overall, this turned out to be a pretty good weekend for the Patriots.

At 11-3, they're well positioned to be a top seed in the AFC playoffs. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans dropped to 10-4 with a loss to the Carolina Panthers, and the Baltimore Ravens were routed by the San Diego Chargers, also dropping to 10-4.

The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) play at San Francisco on Monday, and if they're without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they could be the next to go down.

If that happens, the Patriots would be alone atop the AFC with two weeks to play.

And did we mention that the Green Bay Packers won't be matching the 16-0 Patriots of 2007, their perfect season ended by the Kansas City Chiefs?

It's no wonder that players and coaches were all smiles as they departed Sports Authority Field at Mile High, posing for pictures with their 2011 AFC East championship hats and T-shirts. It's the Patriots' ninth division title in the past 11 years.

The coaching adjustments, coupled with the players not buckling in a challenging environment, were the story of the day.

That formula has been part of the Patriots' identity all season, and linebacker Jerod Mayo presented an interesting theory as to how the club has developed such toughness.

"I think it starts with the coaches. As a matter of fact, it might go higher than that, to the owner," Mayo said. "He's had a rough year. He comes in each and every day and goes to work, and we see that model. It trickles down to the rest of us."

Where it all leads, nobody knows in a league where even the top teams have noticeable flaws.
But mentally tough teams that show a knack for adjusting on the fly usually have as good a chance as anyone, which puts these Patriots in an enviable position.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.