Sunday afternoon's game in Foxborough was supposed to be the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady bowl, but it turned out to be the Stevan Ridley-Danny Woodhead-Brandon Bolden show instead. It also had the makings of a blowout near the end of the third, when Ridley rushed for an 8-yard touchdown to put New England up 31-7.
Peyton Manning tried to do his part to live up to the game's billing, though, leading the Broncos back with two touchdown drives to put Denver within 10 points of New England.
But in the end, New England and its running backs prevailed with a little help from the defensive line. With Denver driving deep in New England territory late in the fourth, Rob Ninkovich forced a Willis McGahee fumble that was recovered by Jermaine Cunningham. New England proceeded to run out the clock, preserving their 31-21 victory.
The Patriots amassed 251 yards rushing Sunday, their biggest performance as a team since going for 277 on December 14, 2008, in Oakland. And though Ridley netted 151 of their yards on the ground, the Pats used Woodhead, Bolden, and even Shane Vereen in their offensive attack, getting positive results from every RB.
On their third offensive drive of the game, Woodhead and Ridley each contributed at least one first down. Shane Vereen finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on his only carry of the game to put New England up 14-7.
Then, on New England's second offensive drive after halftime, Ridley went for 19 yards on a second-and-10 that was the second play of the drive. Six plays later, Woodhead ran 19 yards on a third-and-17 at the Patriots 43-yard line. It was the second time Woodhead had converted a third-and-long in the game. The Patriots continued to march down the field, and Tom Brady got in on the fun with his own 1-yard touchdown to make it 24-7 New England.
Not to be outdone by the ground game, Wes Welker also put together a 100-yard performance, gaining 104 yards on 13 receptions, three more catches than the rest of the Patriots offense combined. The last of his grabs was for 6 yards on a third-and-3 just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter that kept New England's clock-draining drive going. Welker also netted the game's first TD on a short route into the left flat, adjusting to haul in a Tom Brady pass that went behind him.
But as well as Welker and the running backs played, Stevan Ridley gave Manning and the Broncos one more shot at a comeback near the end of the game. On a first-and-10 with New England leading 31-21, a Ridley fumble was recovered by the Broncos. Manning then drove Denver down the field, first with a 17-yard completion to Jacob Tamme, then with a gutsy 28-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas on fourth-and-one at the New England 42.
Then Rob Ninkovich saved the day with a forced fumble on Denver's own star running back Willis McGahee, and New England closed the game with their clock-draining drive.
Next week the Patriots head to Seattle, where their suddenly powerful ground game will be tested against a Seahawk defense that, entering play on Sunday, had allowed the second-fewest yards rushing per attempt in the NFL this season at 3.0 yards per carry. Should the New England decide to continue running the ball next Sunday afternoon, the performance of the RBs should be a telling sign of how potent the team's rushing attack will be the rest of this year. We'll soon find out whether Stevan Ridley and Co. can keep up the good work.