DENVER – Which Patriots would show up this time?
Before their Week 9 bye, New England was playing schizophrenic football. September saw the Patriots score an average of 33 points per game, while their defense was surrendering nearly as many. By October the defense brought its point total down, but so, too, did the offense, by a considerable amount.
What New England needed as they embarked on the second half of their 2017 schedule was the September offense and October defense to meet in Denver, a place where the franchise historically has trouble winning.
By halftime, it looked like that's what they were getting, as the Patriots enjoyed a 27-9 lead, although it might not have been possible were it not for an often overlooked strength of New England: its special teams.
"No question," wide receiver/punt returner Danny Amendola declared. "[Special teams] helps us out tremendously and sparks us."
"Oh, it was huge," echoed running back/coverage man Rex Burkhead. "Anytime we can contribute in that phase, it always helps out, especially in field position and momentum of the game.
"Coach [Joe] Judge had a great game plan for us all week and I thought we executed well."
The first big play on special teams Sunday night came when Bronco punt returner Isaiah McKenzie muffed a Ryan Allen punt on the game's opening sequence. Rookie Jacob Hollister recovered for New England in Denver territory. That salvaged the drive for New England, leading shortly thereafter to Tom Brady's 14-yard touchdown pass to running back Rex Burkhead.
After Denver countered with a field goal, special teams again stepped up with Dion Lewis returning the ensuing kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown.
"It was a great executed play," Lewis recalled in the post-game locker room. "I saw the safety try to run around the wedge, but those guys did a great job blocking, like they always do. I just have to hit it hard and make a guy miss when I can.
"Being able to give my team a boost when we needed it, it was a great way to give us some momentum and a spark on the road."
A blocked punt by Burkhead in the early 2nd quarter then set up a Patriots field goal.
"That's three key plays in the game that helped us to victory," added Lewis.
Offensively, despite a depleted arsenal (no WR Chris Hogan or RT Marcus Cannon), the September Patriots reappeared. New England's O was effective on the ground with Lewis and Burkhead, which neutralized Denver's formidable pass rush and talented cornerbacks.
"The offensive line did a tremendous job up front," raved Burkhead. "That's a great defense and our offensive line really took it to them."
When they did throw, Brady was at his clinical best.
The New England Patriots take on the Denver Broncos in a regular season game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, November 12, 2017.
"Tom did a great job all night, just reading the coverages, checking [the ball] down, seeing the open receivers," observed Burkhead.
It helped that newly-returned tight end Martellus Bennett chipped in with three catches for 38 yards after being back with the Patriots for just three days.
"It was pretty cool," Bennett admitted to reporters afterward. "I mean, last week, I thought I was going to be in IR, so, it's been a surreal week for me."
The October D also made the trip to Mile High, though the defensive effort wasn't entirely flawless. In particular, cornerback Malcolm Butler had arguably his worst performance of the season in Denver. He looked terrible all night covering Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders, who had more than 100 yards receiving before intermission. Butler kept Denver in the game, because were it not for most of those big plays surrendered by him, Denver's offense would've had trouble moving the chains.
"Special teams played really well, defense played really well, offense got the job done," Amendola concluded. "We worked hard last week, had a good week of preparation… It was a big win for us."
"We had a great week of preparation," added Burkhead, "and it showed today."
This couldn't have turned out much better for the Patriots, who accomplished everything they set out to in this hostile environment. Their offense looked unstoppable again, the defense continued its miserly ways, special teams was more than an afterthought, and aside from an aggravated hamstring injury to co-captain Matthew Slater, New England left Mile High healthy and happy.
Overall, a great way to kick off the second half of the season and the beginning of a week-long sojourn in Colorado Springs before heading south to face the Raiders in Mexico City next weekend. If the Patriots can sustain this type of effort over the next two months, they'll be in great position once again to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs.