When the Patriots ran:
What a difference a year makes. The last time New England traveled to Denver the Patriots were forced to attempt 60 passes while almost completely foregoing the running game. Tom Brady was the team's leading rusher in the AFC title game with 13 yards. On Sunday the Patriots ran it 39 times, and although the production wasn't great it was more than enough to keep Denver off balance throughout. Dion Lewis got the call as the team's lead back and picked up 95 yards on 18 tough carries (5.3-yard average) , most of them coming between the tackles. His longest run went for just 14 yards but he consistently moved the pile inside and managed to keep the Patriots out of too many third-and-long situations. LeGarrette Blount got 17 carries and wasn't nearly as successful, picking up just 31 yards for a 1.8-yard average although he did score the game's only touchdown. As a team New England had 136 yards on the ground on those 39 attempts, which translates to just 3.5 yards per carry, but the Patriots were content to play to the scoreboard and rely on the defense.
When the Patriots passed:
Brady never seemed to get settled into this one after misfiring on his first six attempts. He completed just 50 percent of his throws (16 of 32) for a season-low 188 yards and no touchdowns. But he managed to yet again avoid turnovers (Joe Thuney recovered his fumble off a strip sack) and made enough plays against the tough broncos secondary. Julian Edelman was once again the go-to target, catching six of the 12 balls thrown his way for 75 yards. No other receiver caught more than three passes as the Patriots receivers failed to consistently get open against the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. The offensive line held up reasonably well, particularly Marcus Cannon, who kept Von Miller relatively quiet. The Broncos sacked Brady twice and hurried him on a number of occasions but it was nothing like last year's meltdown when the quarterback was hit countless times. It wasn't always pretty – the Patriots went 5 of 17 (29 percent) on third down – but the offense did enough to win.
When the Broncos ran:
Early on it looked like Denver had found its running game. After being ineffective on the ground all season, the Broncos opened the game with six solid runs on their first seven attempts, most coming from veteran Justin Forsett. He ripped off a 13-yard run to open the game and followed with back-to-back carries that resulted in a first down. But things soon changed as early turnovers put Denver in a hole and Forsett was relegated to secondary status. After the hot start Alan Branch and Malcom Brown held him in check and he finished with just 37 yards on only 10 carries. Rookie Devontae Booker was even less effective, picking up 17 yards on six attempts. The Broncos want to run the ball but were unable to do it well enough to protect young Trevor Siemian as the Patriots once again held strong at the point of attack. As a result Denver attempted only 17 rushes and picked up just 58 yards for a 3.4-yard average as a team. The Patriots run defense has been superb of late.
When the Broncos passed:
Malcom Butler may have been the player of the game for the Patriots. He nearly pitched a shutout against the dangerous Emmanuel Sanders, holding him off the stat sheet until the fourth quarter. The Patriots mixed in some zones but Butler was largely responsible for Sanders and limited the Pro Bowler to three inconsequential grabs for 48 yards, all coming after the outcome had been decided. Logan Ryan was responsible for Demaryius Thomas and wasn't nearly as successful, although he came up with a huge play that turned the tide early on. The Broncos were in the midst of a long drive and faced a third-and-three from the Patriots 14 when Siemian looked toward Sanders and Ryan stepped in front of the receiver for the interception. His 46-yard return led to the Patriots only touchdown of the day and allowed the visitors to take control. It was a rare occasion when Ryan had Sanders instead of Thomas, who consistently got the better of the matchup and caught seven passes for 91 yards. It could have been worse but Thomas dropped a couple of passes on potential big plays, one after a big hit delivered by Devin McCourty. The pass rush was once again effective as Trey Flowers picked up a pair of sacks and forced Siemian to unload the ball and a handful of other plays. Overall this was a solid outing by the Patriots defense.
Once again a special teams mistake proved costly but this time it went in the Patriots favor. After forcing a three-and-out to open the game, the Broncos muffed the ensuing punt as Jordan Norwood failed to secure Ryan Allen's kick. Jonathan Jones recovered at the 31 and the Patriots cashed in with a field goal. Both punters were busy, kicking seven times each, with both doing a nice job of keeping the opponent pinned close with three punts downed inside the 20. Edelman returned to punt return duties and had a 16-yarder but was otherwise quiet in that department. Stephen Gostkowski is starting to string some positive games together and connected on all three field goals including kicks of 40 and 45 yards. Barkevious Mingo came up with a huge hit to stop Norwood on a punt return but the kick coverage allowed Cody Latimer to take the second half kickoff back 31yards to give Denver decent field position. Not a lot of big plays in the kicking game but Norwood's early gaffe was huge.