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Game Observations: Special effort in Mile High City

The Patriots traveled to Denver to take on the Broncos in their personal house of horrors, but New England came away with an easy 41-16 victory that featured contributions in all phases.

The win allowed the Patriots to open the second half of the season coming out of the bye in style, committing just one penalty after flags were a big part of the problem in the first half. They also remain firmly atop the AFC East standings with a 7-2 record. Here are some random thoughts from the win.

-The play of LaAdrian Waddle won’t likely headline the list of Patriots positives coming out of Denver but the backup tackle played exceptionally well in place of Marcus Cannon at right tackle. Waddle took on Von Miller quite often and didn’t allow much pressure at all. Miller finished with a single quarterback hit and had no sacks or pressures otherwise. Waddle got some help from the tight ends and fullback James Develin on the edge but for the most part he was solid in Cannon’s place.

-The list of inactive included a couple of surprising names as Mike Gillislee and Cassius Marsh were among those not playing. Gillislee was by far the most notable of the two, but with Martellus Bennett back in New England and active that affected Bill Belichick’s decisions with regard to the game day roster. The Patriots have used four running backs – Gillislee, Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead – in recent weeks and running backs coach Ivan Fears said recently that such a lineup would be tough to sustain. “We’re not going to always be able to do this,” Fears said. “The numbers, the inactive [list], it’s impossible. But we’re very fortunate to be able to do it now with all the other injuries we’ve got [at other positions]. So we’re going to utilize those guys the best we can, as long as we can, and keep them fresh, keep them hammering it, and see what happens.” Gillislee has seen his playing time decrease in recent weeks but he was still receiving his share of carries as he finished with at least 10 in all but one game this season. But as Fears alluded, the added options at other positions made using all four running backs difficult. Marsh had been playing on a full-time basis at defensive end but was listed with a shoulder injury all week and perhaps that was part of the reason he was inactive. Jordan Richards took some reps on the edge while Trevor Reilly saw action at linebacker as well.

-Burkhead had a huge impact in the first half, making contributions on offense and special teams in a variety of ways. First, he opened the scoring by catching a pair of passes for 24 yards, the last resulting in a 14-yard touchdown after the Broncos muffed a punt on the first series of the game. Burkhead later picked up a fourth-and-inches with a tough 3-yard run to set up another touchdown. Finally, Burkhead made a nice tackle covering a kickoff and then capped his terrific half by blocking Riley Dixon’s punt to allow the Patriots to take over at the Denver 30. That led to a field goal and completed an absolutely dominant half of special teams for the visitors.

-The Patriots punted just once in the first half and even that wound up being a big play for New England. Ryan Allen sent a 43-yard punt toward Isaiah McKenzie, who muffed the kick and watched Jacob Hollister recover at the Broncos 24. That led to Burkhead’s 14-yard touchdown catch and sent the Patriots on their way.

-Stephon Gilmore returned to the lineup and was back in the starting lineup to open the game. Gilmore missed the previous three games dealing with a concussion while Johnson Bademosi took his spot. Jonathan Jones also saw plenty of action when Gilmore was out of the lineup, and with Eric Rowe (groin) still inactive that continued in Denver. The Patriots matched up Gilmore of Demaryius Thomas and Malcolm Butler on Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders came up with a big play on the Broncos first series, beating Butler on an out-and-up for 31 yards to set up a Brandon McManus field goal that got the Broncos on the board. On the next series Sanders caught a quick slant behind Jones and raced 38 yards to set up another field goal.

-Gilmore’s return was rather uneventful but Butler’s play on the other side wasn’t among his best. Sanders consistently got the better off him with some pinpoint route-running, and the corner had a hard time containing him. Sanders got deep, was effective short and came up with key catches on third downs as well. Sanders had six catches for 137 yards including gains of 31, 38 and 23 yards. Not all of the catches came against Butler, but most of them did.

-It’s not often when Belichick makes a poor in-game decision but his choice to call a timeout in the second quarter following Rob Gronkowski’s near-catch certainly qualified. With about 10 minutes left in the half and the Patriots leading 17-6, Tom Brady tried to hit Gronk down the seam near the goal line and the tight end nearly came up with a great catch, but the officials ruled it incomplete. The Patriots were slow getting out of the huddle on the ensuing play and called timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty. Then Belichick opted to challenge the call, which was reasonable since there seemed to be a possibility that Gronk made the catch. But the coach should have thrown the challenge flag instead of using the timeout because the failed challenge wound up costing the Patriots two timeouts instead of one. Had he simply challenged and lost, it would have been just one timeout instead of two.

-Beating the Patriots is a tall task but doing so while aiding their cause is impossible. Denver’s special teams were beyond dreadful from start to finish. In addition to McKenzie’s muffed punt and Burkhead’s blocked punt, the kicking game aided the Patriots in other ways as well. Lewis returned a kick 103 yards for a touchdown, breaking free from a terrible tackle effort by Devontae Booker along the way. In the fourth quarter after the game had been decided, the Patriots were stopped and forced to punt but Denver was called for too many men on the field and converted the fourth-and-five as a result. That allowed New England to continue its drive and it ended with a James White touchdown. In all Denver’s special teams contributed to 24 of the Patriots points, and when going against Brady & Co. that amounts to suicide.

-Bennett was an active part of the offense early on before playing sporadically the remainder of the night. He caught a pair of passes early including one for 27 yards on the Patriots third series of the game. He was banged up and went to the medical tent on the Patriots sideline momentarily but was able to return, although he didn’t see extensive action after that. Bennett finished with three catches for 38 yards in his first game back with the team.

-Ricky Jean Francois, another newcomer, also saw action after arriving earlier in the week. Jean Francois was signed on Wednesday and saw action at defensive tackle with Malcom Brown (ankle) among the inactives. The Patriots front seven struggled at times stopping the run but the game got out of hand in the second half and Denver was unable to stick with the run.

-Belichick earned his 270th career win, joining Dallas’ Tom Landry for third most all time. Predictably the coach wasn’t too concerned with the personal milestone. “That’s flattering but it’s really not the story tonight. The players deserve the credit,” Belichick said.

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