Denver, CO – We know what most fans are thinking after the Patriots stunned the Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on Christmas Eve: why should we be happy they won this game?
Look, I learned my lesson from the win in Pittsburgh when you all circled the wagons because I said it was a nice win for a team reeling after five straight losses. Most of you don't want the Patriots to keep winning at this point. You'd rather the Pats keep losing to get the best pick possible for the 2024 draft – at the end of the day, it's what's best for the franchise.
New England earning its fourth win of the season with a 20-point third quarter (most in a quarter since 2021) and an excellent defensive performance at Mile High does this team no good in the long run. At 4-11, the Cardinals and Commanders have now leapfrogged the Patriots in the draft order, with New England holding the fourth overall pick. If we assume no trades, that means they're unlikely to land top quarterback prospects Caleb Williams and Drake Maye.
If you're angry the Patriots won in Denver, again, I learned my lesson. I won't tell you how to feel. However, I will tell you what this means for New England's bigger picture.
The Patriots had every reason to roll over on a holiday road trip with nothing to play for except pride. Honestly, the thought crossed my mind more than once that they might not show up for this game, or any game, after losing to the Colts in Germany before the bye week. It's a spot where many teams with rumors swirling about their head coach's future would let go of the rope.
Instead, the Patriots continue to play hard for head coach Bill Belichick with the playoffs out of reach. New England is getting a half of competent quarterback play from second-year QB Bailey Zappe each week, which has been enough in two of its last three games. The defensive effort never wavered, the Pats got their first non-offensive TD of the season, and rookie kicker Chad Ryland made the kick of his life on a 56-yard field goal to win the game 26-23 on Sunday night.
Although we aren't ready to play revisionist history on the quarterback yet, some will argue that the Patriots should've gone to Zappe sooner. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is this team hasn't quit on their head coach. That doesn't absolve Belichick for all his failures that got them to this point, but it says something about the coach: Belichick has yet to lose the locker room, which could change things about the future.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots improve to 4-11 with an upset win over the Broncos on Christmas Eve night in Denver:
1. Powerful Player of the Game Presented by Enel: Patriots DT Christian Barmore Registers Three Sacks, Four QB Hits, One Fourth-Down Stuff in Unreal Performance
In my six seasons covering the Patriots, I've been lucky to see Hall of Fame players have great games, and Sunday night's performance by Christian Barmore is right up there with the GOATs.
Following a strip-sack on the first play from scrimmage for the Patriots offense, Barmore was an unblockable force from the first Denver possession when he stuffed Broncos running back Javonte Williams on a fourth down attempt from the NE 4 to save the offense's bacon. Barmore then continued his excellent performance with a three-sack third quarter.
Barmore logged sacks on a quick two-hand swipe move (3.37 seconds), a straight bull rush, and a relentless pursuit on his third sack, where he forced a fumble. The Pats third-year pro, who is extension eligible this offseason, is playing at an All-Pro level right now. He's simply been the Patriots best player this season and should be a Patriot long-term.
I asked Barmore in the post-game locker room if anyone can block him right now: "I'm just playing football," he smiled.
Although it feels hyperbolic, this was as good an individual performance as I've seen in my years covering the Patriots — Barmore was that good.
2. Patriots QB Bailey Zappe Flips the Script with Strong Second-Half Performance
The discourse around second-year QB Bailey Zappe has accurately been that he's a tale of two halves.
Typically, it's been a strong opening script followed by a collapse in the second half. However, Zappe flipped the script on Sunday night. At halftime, the Patriots were generating -0.34 expected points added per drop-back, including a turnover on the very first play from scrimmage. Zappe finished the game with +0.04 EPA per play, speaking to the strong second half for the Patriots quarterback.
Along with a 41-yard completion to Demario Douglas, Zappe capped off a third-quarter touchdown drive with a nice 11-yard touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki. Zappe finds clean air in the pocket, keeps his eyes downfield, and fits the ball into a tight window for six. Those were the types of plays the Patriots weren't getting from the quarterback.
On the game-winning drive, it felt like the Patriots were initially playing for overtime with two straight runs. But the Patriots went downfield on third down to DeVante Parker. After forcing the Broncos to burn two timeouts with two runs, Zappe signaled to Parker to convert his route to a fade against press-man, then the Pats QB gave his guy a chance on the back-shoulder throw.
Zappe also pushed the ball downfield in the first half on a 28-yard throw into the cover-two hole. With the Broncos disguising their coverage with an exotic post-snap rotation, Zappe uses a subtle pump fake to get the flat defender to fall off Reagor's vertical and then puts it on his receiver.
The Patriots are still searching for a complete game from the Zappe-led offense, with Denver's blitz pressure speeding up his process, leading to some errant throws. Still, Zappe is giving them enough right now to compete. Is it enough to hitch your wagon to him? No, not yet.
3. Patriots Defense Forces Broncos QB Russell Wilson into Dink and Dunk Performance
The chess match between head coach Bill Belichick and Broncos head coach Sean Payton was a marque schematic face-off.
With two experienced and heralded minds on their sides of the ball, Payton opened the game by attacking the Patriots soft zone coverages in the flats with quick throws and outside runs. Denver moved the ball with toss schemes from two-back formations, forcing the Pats defensive backs to play at the point of attack rather than running into the teeth of the top-ranked run defense in the NFL.
However, the strategy to play more zone coverage with a banged-up secondary against an explosive Broncos passing game worked out. Until he inflated it with deep shots late, Wilson averaged 2.1 air yards per attempt through three quarters, which is not how the Broncos want to play football. Russ has always been a great deep ball thrower, so the Patriots forced him to beat them by marching down the field, while an early injury to Broncos WR Courtland Sutton helped.
Besides a 47-yard completion to rookie Marvin Mims, the Patriots defense only allowed one other 20-plus yard pass play on a catch-and-run. At times, the bending-without-breaking strategy can be frustrating. But it was clear the Patriots were rattling Wilson, forcing him to hold the ball and take five sacks, some of which were of the seeing ghosts variety.
As always, there's usually a method to Belichick's madness. Although the Broncos head coach got them early with a few good play calls, the Patriots defense continued to deliver. Imagine this unit with a full deck next season (Judon, Gonzalez, Marcus Jones, etc).
4. Although Issues Remain on Special Teams, Rookie K Chad Ryland Nails Game-Winner
What a roller coaster ride for the Patriots special teams, which played its first game in nearly seven seasons without captain Matthew Slater, and it showed on Sunday night.
The Patriot's special teams were up and down, to say the least. The game began with a 52-yard punt return by Marvin Mims, then there was a crucial penalty on Slater's replacement at gunner, Chris Board, and a muffed punt by Myles Bryant. However, the Pats special teams unit accounted for ten critical points in the game to complete the loop on the roller coaster ride.
Starting with the kicker, rookie Chad Ryland missed an extra point and a 47-yard field goal in the first three quarters. To Ryland's credit, though, he stepped up to the plate to drill a 56-yard game-winning field goal. Ryland acknowledged after the game that it's been a rough first season in New England, ranking 32nd among 33 qualified kickers in field goal percentage. But when the Patriots needed him most on Sunday night, Ryland rose to the occasion to win the game.
Along with Ryland's heroics, the Patriots also got a special teams score courtesy of rookie LB Marte Mapu's great kickoff coverage. Mapu tackled returner Marvin Mims after a muff to force a fumble, then special teams ace Cody Davis scooped up the ball in the end zone for six.
The Patriots special teams have been ranked near the bottom of the league for most of the season, coming into the Week 16 slate at 31st in special teams DVOA. It was another mixed bag on Sunday night, but New England made the plays in the second half when it counted most.
Ultimately, let's not let that distract us from the fact that this unit has been a mess all season. Hopefully, Ryland can build on the confidence from the game-winner to turn things around.
5. Patriots WR Demario Douglas is Two Yards Shy of Making Belichick-Era History
The Patriots rookie wideout was one dropped pass away from making history with a strong five-catch, 74-yard performance on Sunday night. Douglas is now two receiving yards shy of passing Aaron Dobson for the most receiving yards by a Patriots rookie wideout in the Belichick era. Douglas needs 53 yards over the final two games to have the most for any rookie pass-catcher.
In Denver, Douglas's separation quickness was on full display on a 13-yard slant and a nasty whip route to dust a Broncos defender. Douglas also showed off his contested catch ability on a 41-yard reception where Zappe extended the play and gave him a chance downfield. Douglas has emerged as a clear building block for the Patriots offense moving forward, and if it wasn't for his lone blemish on the night, the sixth-round rookie would've passed Dobson already.
6. Shorthanded Offensive Line Remains a Big Issue for the Patriots Offense
The offensive line was to blame for a bad start to the game for the Patriots, which is becoming a theme for this offense. New England doesn't have a reliable O-Line to truly open up a drop-back passiing game. Instead, Zappe has to resort to quick-game throws and one–on–one shots, with the offensive line unable to hold up long enough to run deep passing concepts or play-action. Coach Belichick confirmed the plan heading into the week was to platoon left tackle (Trent Brown and Vederian Lowe) and left guard (James Ferentz and Atonio Mafi).
With the Patriots needing to replace starting left guard Cole Strange (IR, knee), Strange's replacements struggled big-time in this one. After signing to the roster from the practice squad, veteran James Ferentz was rag-dolled on the very first play of the game, leading to a strip-sack on a play-action drop-back. Then, rookie Atonio Mafi played 54 of the 58 snaps, where he was called for holding three times and had his own issues with allowing pressure. It's been tough sledding for this offense to have a threatening passing game while the Pats had a lousy 24% success rate on the ground. You have to win the line of scrimmage in this league.
7. LB Mack Wilson Emerging as Effective Pass Rusher for the Patriots
Along with crediting the entire defense, Coach Belichick singled out the edge rush from outside linebackers Mack Wilson, Josh Uche, and Anfernee Jennings as a key part of the game plan defensively.
With an extended play artist at quarterback for the Broncos, the edge rushers needed good discipline to keep Russell Wilson in the pocket. Uche had a good example of that on his sack, while Mack Wilson continues to push for a bigger role as a situational pass-rusher. Wilson's speed off the edge has given opposing OTs problems. Wilson's sack, which came on a simulated pressure where the Pats showed blitz zero then dropped into a four-man rush, was the third-fastest sack by a Patriots defender this season (3.14 seconds). As an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, Wilson is playing his way into the retention category.
8. Quick Shout Outs to Other Standouts from the Patriots Win over the Broncos
- Strong showing in the passing game for RB Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott became the Pats go-to safety blanket without TE Hunter Henry (nine catches), and the "traffic" plays into the flat are becoming a regular thing. Plus, that hurdle was sweet.
- LB Jahlani Tavai had another splash play on defense. This time, dropping out of the rush on a creeper pressure to force a fumble. Jalen Mills came through unblocked off the right side thanks to the pressure scheme by the Patriots.
- Two big pass breakups late by Jonathan Jones and Shaun Wade on Jerry Jeudy. Those two stepped up with Russ trying to push the ball downfield in the comeback bid.
- TE Pharaoh Brown cannot be contained with a key catch on third down and a 20-yard reception on a two-vertical concept out of 12 personnel with Mike Gesicki. Feed the beast.
- Rookie second-rounder Keion White had a QB hit, a blown-up run, and a batted pass at the line of scrimmage. He shows up when its see ball, get ball.