Playoff Risers: Front seven dominates in divisional round victory

The Champion brought down the Messiah.

After a week of hearing how Tim Tebow was going to walk into Foxboro and confuse the Patriots defense, it was Tebow who was praying for an answer to the swarming wall of New England defenders.

It seems almost unfair to overlook Tom Brady’s six touchdown passes, including five in the first half, but it was the defense that stood out and stood firm against the unconventional and ineffective Broncos offense.

Less than a month after surrendering 167 rushing yards in the first quarter in their 41-23 win over Denver, New England looked like the Steel Curtain Saturday night, beating Tebow into the turf and holding him to 10 points.

With the 45-10 beatdown, New England will play the winner of the Houston/Baltimore game in the AFC Championship next weekend.

Let’s take a look at this week’s top performers.

1. Tom Brady: Despite an MVP-caliber season, there were many doubters who questioned whether Brady still had the playoff magic that fueled his championship success earlier this decade. By the end of the game, I doubt those doubters existed. Outside of a poorly thrown interception, Brady flawlessly picked apart the Denver defense, completing 26 of 34 passes for 363 yards and six touchdowns. The three-time champ hooked up with Rob Gronkowski 10 times for 145 yards and three first-half scores and made a beautiful deep throw to a streaking Deion Branch along the left sideline for a 61-yard TD. Safe to say the playoff magic is back.

2. Gronk/Hernandez: We’ve never seen two more productive tight ends and may never see so again. If Gronk is 1A than Hernandez has to be 1B. The two complement each other so well and literally can’t be defended at this point. Gronkowski simply outmuscles any safety or linebacker and is a red zone nightmare. Hernandez has become the focal point of the offense, lining up at running back, wide out, h-back, fullback and in the slot. The former Gator had 116 total yards including 61 on the ground. He did suffer a head injury late in the game, but appears to have escaped without anything serious.

3. Linebackers: While the secondary has been much maligned all season, the front seven has actually played pretty well considering the injuries that have plagued the unit. Linebacker Brandon Spikes’ return to the lineup has been invaluable as the second-year pro plays with unparalleled physicality and emotion. Spikes recorded six tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pass defended. However, the true star of the linebacking corps was sixth-year man Rob Ninkovich. He’s become the new Mike Vrabel of the defense, coming up with timely turnovers while setting the edge in the run game. After a poor performance in the first matchup against Denver, Ninkovich dominated with five tackles (one for loss) and 1.5 sacks while showing great discipline on playing the option.

4. Defensive line: Despite losing Andre Carter and playing with big bodies mostly drafted/signed for the 3-4 defense, this group stepped up big time in a big game. Vince Wilfork tied Ninkovich with 1.5 sacks and veterans Shaun Ellis and Gerard Warren made two momentum-shifting plays. Ellis, who largely underperformed in limited playing time during the regular season, made a huge blindside sack of Tebow and Warren stuffed the fellow Gator for a huge loss before executing the signature Gator chomp. Mark Anderson had another great performance playing in a hybrid role.