It was a back-and-forth affair on Christmas Eve in Denver, as the Patriots and Broncos traded sporadic play in the low-scoring first half until New England exploded in the third quarter to build a double-digit lead powered by stout defensive play, big offensive plays and even a special teams score. But Denver came roaring back with two sustained fourth-quarter drives just as New England's offense went silent, and the Broncos tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
But the Pats defense forced one final stop and gave the offense a final chance, which they took advantage of with a big third-down play for 27 yards to DeVante Parker that set up a thrilling game-winning field goal by Chad Ryland as time wound down to the final two seconds. It gave New England a 26-23 win.
Here are the key takeaways from New England's Christmas Eve victory in Denver.
1. Topsy Turvy Start
Things got off to a rocky start for the Patriots when Bailey Zappe was hit and fumbled on the very first play of the game. It looked like James Ferentz, playing in his first game of the season after getting promoted to the active roster, was beaten off the snap, while starting left tackle Vederian Lowe struggled to hold his own block. Just like that, Denver took over on New England's six-yard line and looked poised to take an early lead.
However, the crazy start would continue, as it appeared initially that Mack Wilson picked off Russell Wilson on third down after two stout run stops by the Patriots run defense. Upon review the pass was ruled incomplete, setting up a fourth down, which Denver coach Sean Payton elected to go for. The Broncos ran an RPO but Javonte Williams was tripped by his own teammate as soon as he took the handoff and failed to get into the end zone for the score.
New England took back over in the scoreless game after an eventful first few minutes that included a fumble, a near interception and a fourth-down stop, but quickly punted it back to Denver without picking up a first down.
2. Big Bronco Punt Return Sparks First Score
After the two teams failed to produce a first down through five possessions between them, Marvin Mims gave Denver the spark they needed with a 52-yard punt return. With Matthew Slater not playing for the first time since 2017, the Patriots special teams, which have struggled throughout the year, gave up another game-changing play. Bill Belichick highlighted Mims earlier last week as the best returner in the game and the talented player showed why early in the game.
Five plays later Williams would take the ball in for the first touchdown of the game as the two teams shared run-heavy approaches in the early going. The mistakes continued to pile up for the Pats early, as their offense was unable to move the ball, running just seven total plays through their first three possessions.
3. Pats Get Going
After a disappointing first three possessions, the Patriots put together their first scoring drive, aided by a 28-yard catch by Jalen Reagor as Bailey Zappe dropped a perfect pass in the coverage hole along the sideline. The big play came at an important time, as Zappe had been sacked for a 10-yard loss on the previous play. Ezekiel Elliot played a key role on the possession, accounting for 18 yards on the 13-play, 61-yard drive.
Chad Ryland kicked a 33-yard field goal to make it a 7-3 game early in the second quarter.
Denver countered with a few big plays of their own on the next drive, quickly traveling across midfield until Jahlani Tavai, one of the team's standout playmakers this season, forced a fumble from Javonte Williams that was recovered by Jeremiah Pharms, who ripped the ball away from the Broncos lineman who appeared to have recovered the fumble initially. Pharms, who started the year on the practice squad, has earned praise this year from defensive line coach Demarcus Covington and made an effort play that was one of the first standout plays of his young career.
After another Broncos punt, Zappe and the Patriots offense again put together a nice drive with time running out in the first half, going 44 yards but stopping short of the end zone. That set up another field goal attempt for Ryland, who missed the 47-yarder. It was the seventh miss of Ryland's rookie year as he's battled inconsistency throughout. He is 14-of-22 on the season.
The Broncos would miss a field goal of their own, a 57-yarder, to close out the first half, with Denver taking a 7-3 lead to the locker room.
4. Second Half Spark
After two games of solid play in the first half and wilting second halves, the Patriots got the kind of second-half start they've been looking for by first forcing a punt, then putting together an impressive touchdown drive. The stop was sparked by a sack by Christian Barmore that backed up Denver 10 yards. Barmore has had an outstanding season and continues to surge in December.
On the ensuing drive, Zappe stepped up in the pocket on the very first play and hit Pop Douglas for a 41-yarder and then targeted the rookie for a 13-yard crosser, as Douglas accounted for 54 yards all by himself. Zeke Elliot finished the drive off two plays later by catching a swing pass, jumping over a defender and taking the rock to the house for a Patriots touchdown.
Unfortunately, Ryland's struggles continued as he missed the extra point, his first extra point miss of the season. That made it 9-7 in the third quarter.
New England's strong play would continue, as they forced another two punts from Denver and produced another scoring drive, again aided by a big play, this one a 30-yarder to DeVante Parker. The five-play, 52-yard drive ended with a touchdown strike to Mike Gesicki in the back of the end zone to make it 16-7 with a successful Ryland extra point.
The craziness continued on the ensuing kickoff immediately after Gesicki's touchdown, as rookie Marte Mapu forced a fumble that was recovered by Cody Davis in the end zone for another score. Just like that, it was 23-7 New England as they pulled away with a stellar third quarter of complementary football in which all three units contributed. It was the second time in two games that the rookie Mapu played a part in a takeaway as he continued to build toward a strong ending to his first season.
5. Broncos Fight Back
With their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Broncos put together their best drive of the night, executing a nine-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that got its biggest boost from a 47-yard catch by Marvin Mims that helped set up the score. Denver also converted the two-point conversion to make it a 23-15 game midway through the fourth quarter.
With New England unable to reproduce their offensive success of the third quarter, Denver again drove the ball down the field to make things interesting right down to the very end. Wilson found Brian Johnson for a 21-yard touchdown with a good two-point conversion that tied the game with 2:53 left in the game.
New England's defense responded with one final stop, giving their offense one more chance to win the game and that's just what they did, with Zappe hitting DeVante Parker for a big gain and then Ryland making up for his previous mistakes with a 56-yard game-winning field goal.
After nearly blowing a 16-point lead, the Pats showed great resilience at the end of the game and came through with a clutch win.
6. Patriots are 4-11
The Patriots found a way to pull out their fourth win of the season on Christmas Eve and did it with a dominating defensive effort coupled with a group effort for points to secure the victory. Christian Barmore led the way with three sacks, he was in the backfield all night, while Jahlani Tavai and Jeremiah Pharms combined for a takeaway, as the defense shut down Russell Wilson and the Broncos offense down for the majority of the game.
The Pats D has played like that before this season, but this week Zappe and the Patriots offense came through with some big plays that helped them produce multiple touchdowns, despite a missed field goal and a missed extra point by Chad Ryland that made the game closer than it might've needed to be. Ryland of course came through at the end when they needed him to secure the win.
It was the best all-around complementary football game of the Patriots 2023 season and it was surprising that it came in a hostile environment that has often given the team from New England fits even at the height of their powers.
Next up, the Pats will face a Buffalo team that is starting to string together some wins as they continue to push for an AFC East title. With Miami setting the pace, the division title could come down to the very final week of the season. Buffalo still has plenty to play for and New England will be in for another war in upstate New York.