DENVER - Everything was on the line for New England on Sunday in Denver. A win over the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos would seal both the AFC East crown and, more importantly, a coveted first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs.
It seems there's always something momentous at stake when the Patriots visit this gorgeous frontier city. Problem is, for whatever reason, Bill Belichick's troops rarely play their best football in this stadium. Their performances are usually as rocky as the mountain range that defines this part of the country. Even when it has looked like they had the better team and a chance to win in very recent contests, they've managed to let games at Mile High slip away.
Last season, on Thanksgiving Weekend, a Patriots muffed punt was to blame for the start of a late-season collapse. Most recently, in New England's Monday night win over Baltimore, another muffed by nearly led to a Ravens comeback.
So, it seemed fitting that this game would start in similar fashion, only this time, it was Denver mishandling New England's punt on the game's opening drive. That gave the Patriots the ball in Bronco territory, but a series of misfires by QB Tom Brady forced New England to kick a field goal to open the scoring. The Patriots defense mostly did its job, limiting the Broncos to a field goal to knot up the score midway through the first quarter.
Given Denver's atrocious rush defense (29th in the NFL entering the contest), it wasn't surprising to see New England try to run on the Broncos, but somewhat of a surprise that they went with diminutive Dion Lewis more than bruiser LeGarrette Blount early on. Blount eventually got his carries, and his franchise record-setting 15 touchdown on the ground, which gave New England a 10-3 lead that they carried into intermission.
It was Lewis, though – who missed both games against Denver last season because of his season-ending left knee injury – who carried the load for the Patriots. Which even caught him a bit off-guard. He admitted that he wasn't aware he'd have such a big role entering the day (18 carries, 95 yards).
"No, but every week I prepare to be the guy. Today just happened to be my day," he smiled.
The Broncos were able to move the ball, but not capitalize on the scoreboard, thanks to a Logan Ryan INT as Denver were threatening to punch the ball into the end zone. A Trey Flowers sack on the next Bronco drive also led to an eventual Denver punt.
Jabaal Sheard sacked Siemian to start the second half, continuing a solid defensive performance for New England all afternoon. DT Malcom Brown and Flowers added two more later in the game.
Meanwhile, Brady's struggles in Denver continued. He couldn't connect on his first six pass attempts of the game. It took until the early second quarter before Brady completed his first pass. That seemed to get Brady back on track, although he sputtered a bit immediately following halftime, and wasn't truly himself all day, completing just half his throws.
"It's always a four-quarter thing for us and we have to play well on all sides of the ball. I thought we did that today," declared WR Chris Hogan. "It was a grind, but we grinded it out."
They did so in part thanks to New England's o-line, which had considerable difficulty in last season's AFC title game here, but did a decent job protecting Brady for much of the game and plowing through Denver's 29th-ranked rushing defense. This helped Lewis and the other backs grind out yards and precious time off the clock.
"Hats off to the offensive line. They blocked really well," Hogan added.
A year ago in the regular season, the Patriots had a 14-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter. That's when the defense forced Denver to punt and it appeared the game was over, until rookie Chris Harper turned the ball over, sparking Denver's gritty overtime comeback win.
This year, it was a 10-point margin that New England enjoyed at the same approximate time of the game, and again, its defense forced a Broncos punt. And instead of a rookie handling the return duties at midfield, it was reliable veteran Julian Edelman, who calmly collected the ball and kept it in his team's possession.
With the running game clicking and Brady having trouble connecting with his receivers, it was curious that OC Josh McDaniels chose to call three straight passing plays at this juncture, rather than continue to try milking the clock on the ground.
In the end, it didn't matter, because despite having to punt to Denver, New England's defense came up strong, as they had all evening. That unit appears to be gaining strength as the playoffs near.
"It's a good time to play your best football, for sure," DE Chris Long acknowledged. "You can kind of feel it building up. We just kind of continue to improve, trying to get turnovers, disrupting the quarterback. Guys are playing really unselfish, doing whatever they're asked to do. That's what this defense is about."
Ryan attributed the improved play to "executing better" overall.
"They came out and no-huddled us at the beginning of the game," he explained. "We took their best shot and held them to three [points]. That feels good for us. Coming out of halftime, we had our feet under us, got used to everything [they were doing]. We knew it was going to take a lot more than that to score on us today.
"We thought we played well last year, too, but didn't play well in the red area. So, we wanted to come out here and completely dominate the game and make the quarterback look like a young quarterback. It didn't matter what they did. We were on our game today."
The Patriots were far from perfect today, particularly on offense. But that's par for the course here in Colorado. What mattered was that they did enough on both sides of the ball, as well as on special teams, to collect not only a special win in a tough environment, but also yet another 12-win season, AFC East title, and the security of a first-round playoff bye.