Ninkovich Time!

Saturday's playoff game between the Patriots and the Broncos was supposed to be "Tebow time", but it turned out to be something entirely different.

FOXBORO – It was supposed to be "Tebow Time!"

     The Broncos were down 7-0 after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady surgically dismantled the Denver defense for 80 yards on five plays at the start of Saturday night's AFC Divisional playoff game. Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow had to answer the Patriots' opening touchdown drive with a score of his own.

     On five plays, Tebow was able to push the ball from Denver's own 24 yard line to New England's 37. Denver was answering the Patriots drive against the worst ranked defense in the NFL. The Broncos were stampeding down the field, but on play six of the drive, "Tebow Time" came to an abrupt end. It was "Ninkovich Time!"

     On second and nine, Tebow dropped back for a play-action pass, but Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich beat Denver's right tackle Orlando Franklin around the edge to get to Tebow in the pocket, stripping the quarterback of the ball in the process. Patriots' linebacker Brandon Spikes recovered the ball on the 41. After the play, it took Brady seven plays to make the score 14-0 and the game was never really in doubt from that point as the Patriots went on to a 45-10 victory.

     "It was a good play," Ninkovich told the media in the Patriots locker room following the game. "Just turning the momentum in our favor to get it to 14-0 … Whenever you can get a sack-fumble and to get the recovery, it's a good play all the way round. I was happy to be able to do that and to help the team.

     "Whenever the offense gets the ball, goes down and scores and its 7-0, you want to have it on your shoulders," he said. "Let's get the ball back to ‘em! Let's make it 14! Let's make it 21! It's a great feeling when they get the ball back and score."

     Brady and the offense appreciated the play of the defense. "That fumble we got was pretty important in the first quarter," Brady said in his postgame press conference. "Anytime you score points and you score 45, obviously [it comes] with the help of our defense."

     Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said Ninkovich was determined to make an impact on the game. "I know he was a little bit disappointed in the way he played in the last Denver game and he's very determined. He had a great week of practice, great week of preparation and he had a real good night tonight.

     "Rob's been a very consistent player for us all year," he said. Ninkovich had a career-high 6.5 sacks during the 2011 regular season. "He did a great job tonight along with a lot of other guys out there."

     Ninkovich finished with five tackle and 1.5 sacks for 9.5 yards, including the force fumble. The Patriots sacked Tebow five times for 28 yards, while forcing the Broncos into 14 negative plays throughout the game. Spikes, Vince Wilfork, and Shaun Ellis also got into the sack parade. Wilfork and Ninkovich teamed up for an 11-yard sack of Tebow on second down in the third quarter, setting up a third-and-21 that Denver did not convert. Ellis sacked Tebow for a 5-yard loss on first down in the third quarter and Spikes sacked Tebow for a 4-yard loss on second-and-15 in the third quarter, helping to force Denver to settle for a 41-yard field goal two plays later.

     All throughout the game, the Patriots defense dropped the Denver offense for big losses. Kyle Arrington had a standout game with 11 total tackles, a pass defense, and a forced fumble on special teams. He made a key tip of a Tebow pass intended for Eddie Royal on first down in the second quarter, kick-starting a three-and-out by the Patriots defense.

Tebow sacked
Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (15) is pressured by New England Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich in an AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Broncos 45-10. 1/14/2012  (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

     Defensive end Gerard Warren sniffed out a Tebow rush play in the second quarter and dropped him for a 6-yard loss, setting up a third-and-20 to stop a drive, while linebackers Jerod Mayo and Mark Anderson stopped Willis McGahee for a 2-yard loss on second down in the third quarter, setting up a third-and-eight and another stalled Denver drive. Anderson also dragged McGahee down for a 5-yard loss on first down in the third quarter, helping to force Denver to settle for a 41-yard field goal three plays later. Spikes also dropped Lance Ball for a 5-yard loss on first down in the fourth quarter.

     "It just comes down to team defense," said Belichick. "Being able to do our job in the running game, inside with the quarterback on the pitch, those kinds of things, play action passes - they threw a lot of those … It takes 11 guys to stop that offense, not one. As a team, I thought they communicated and executed pretty well."

     "Plays like that [strip sack] does help the defense get pumped up and get into the rhythm of the game," said Ninkovich. "It shows we can control the game and give the ball to our offense anytime."

     … With the win over Tebow and Denver, the Patriots advance to the franchises eighth AFC Championship game. The Patriots have compiled a 6-1 all-time record in AFC Championship Games, including a 3-0 record at home and a 2-0 record at home at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots' only AFC Championship loss was in the 2006 playoffs at Indianapolis.

 New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) breaks a tackle from Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris (25) for a touchdown during the first half of the 2011 AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. (Michael Ivins-US PRESSWIRE)1/14/2012
     … Patriots coach Bill Belichick improved his career playoff record to 16-6 (.727). Belichick's 16 career playoff wins tie Chuck Noll for the fourth highest total by any head coach in NFL history, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famers Tom Landry (20), Don Shula (19), and Joe Gibbs (17). Belichick's career playoff winning percentage of .727 ties Oakland's Tom Flores for the second-highest playoff winning percentage among NFL head coaches, trailing only Vince Lombardi (9-1, .900).

     … The Patriots scored 45 points and gained 509 total net yards against the Broncos, both single-game franchise playoff records.

     … Brady won his 15th career postseason game to improve to 15-5. His .750 winning percentage in the postseason is the best postseason winning percentage by a starting quarterback (minimum of 15 starts). Brady and Joe Montana are the only NFL players with 15 or more wins. Brady is now 9-2 in home postseason games.

     … Brady's six touchdown passes raised his career playoff total to 36 touchdown passes, moving him into third place on the NFL's all-time playoff touchdown pass list, trailing only Joe Montana (45) and Brett Favre (

     … Brady threw for 363 yards moving passed Dan Marino into fifth place on the all-time postseason passing list. Brady's 363 passing yards set a new single-game Patriots playoff record. Brady finished the game with 4,770 total passing yards in his 20 career playoff games.

     … Deion Branch had three receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown and moved passed Troy Brown (694) for most postseason receiving yards in Patriots history. Branch finished the game with a total of 773 playoff receiving yards in a Patriots uniform. Additionally, Branch's touchdown reception was his fifth career playoff touchdown for the Patriots, moving into a tie with Curtis Martin for second on the team's all-time list. Branch's 61-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the second quarter is his longest postseason touchdown pass. His previous best was a 60-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh on Jan. 23, 2005. David Givens is the Patriots' all-time playoff leader with seven postseason touchdowns.

     … Rob Gronkowski tied an NFL record for most touchdown receptions in a postseason game with three touchdowns. It is the 17th time in NFL history a player has had three touchdown receptions in a postseason game. Gronkowski and Dave Casper of Oakland (vs. Baltimore on Dec. 24, 1977) are the only tight ends to achieve the feat. Against the Broncos, Gronkowski had a 10-yard touchdown in the first quarter, a 12-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a 19-yard score in the second quarter.

Kevin Saleeba is a frequent contributor and columnist to Patriots Insider. A former beat writer for local media, Kevin has extensive knowledge of the team and experience covering the Patriots. Share your thoughts on this article, or send your questions to Kevin ( here ).

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