…OC Josh McDaniels made it clear on the game's opening drive how he planned to neutralize Denver's devastating pass rush – by employing a secret weapon that wasn't at New England's disposal in either game at Mile High last year: RB Dion Lewis. McDaniels called on Lewis to run the ball the first two plays (after he'd been asked to field the opening kickoff, by the way), and he did so between the tackles. There was a lot more of this to come, and it proved quite effective at achieving New England's goals on offense.
…Last week, we started out with a look at a positive special teams play involving rookie Jonathan Jones, and we're looking at him again early on in this game. Like last week, Jones was the gunner on the right side of the formation when Ryan Allen came in to punt on the fourth play of the game. And like last week, Jones eluded the one Denver vice guy assigned to him at the line of scrimmage. Jones ran to the inside and sprinted up the seam. Last Monday against Baltimore, Jones did this exact same thing and put himself in position to keep an Allen punt from bouncing into the end zone for a touchback.
Against the Broncos, Jones was able to get himself in an awaiting position near returner Jordan Norwood, who couldn't collect Allen's high, short wobbler of a punt. Jones was in the right place at the right time, thanks to his ability to get off the line of scrimmage without being slowed down by his opponent. Excellent work, and it resulted in one of the biggest plays of the day for the Patriots.
…I liked how the Patriots responded defensively to Denver's attempt to use the no-huddle. New England reacted well to this adjustment by the Broncos in the early stages and withstood the tactic, surrendering only a field goal after a long drive. The Patriots weren't fooled by anything the Broncos called.
…CB Logan Ryan was in man coverage against WR Emmanuel Sanders when he picked off QB Trevor Siemian's pass on the first play of this quarter, deep in Patriots territory. Sanders motioned from the right side of the formation to the left, leaving himself all alone with Ryan on that side of the field. Sanders ran a shallow out-pattern on the 3rd-and-3 play, presumably to try just to pick up the first down, if not more.
Ryan, however, was covering Sanders tight, had one eye on the receiver and another in the backfield. Siemian's throw would have been on target had Ryan not anticipated it so well and jumped into the path of the pass. His ensuing 46-yard return put New England's offense in fantastic field position and robbed Denver of any momentum it was about to build.
…There was almost a disaster on the very next play, though, as QB Tom Brady was sacked and fumbled at midfield. Luckily, rookie LG Joe Thuney had his wits about him and fell on the football to keep possession with the Patriots.
It was Thuney, however, who allowed his man, DE Jared Crick, to make the play on Brady in the first place. Crick just used a swim move on Thuney and stunted around OLB Von Miller, who was rushing up-field against LT Nate Solder. Thuney got caught up in the wash, which allowed Crick to get behind an unsuspecting Brady as he wound up to throw. The ball fell to the turf, but Thuney was looking back there and reacted immediately to make up for his initial blocking error.
…Brady, meanwhile, was off-target with many of his throws again in this game. Half of his 16 incompletions were placement errors of his own doing (overthrows, underthrows, or behind his intended targets).
…One of those throws that looked like it was sailing incomplete ended up being one of WR Julian Edelman's most impressive catches this season. Brady fired a pass over two Broncos defenders, trying to find Edelman as he ran a corner route to the sideline. The ball looked like it was going to go out of bounds, but Edelman reached up, made the grab, and somehow kept both feel inbounds just inches from the sideline.
…A second Patriots fumble on this drive was, in fact, a touchdown before the ball came loose from Lewis' hands. On 1st-and-goal from the DEN 3, Lewis took the carry up the middle behind FB James Develin. He then jump-cut to his left, darting forward, and was met at the 1-yard line by three Bronco defenders. Lewis reached out with the ball in his right hand and it broke the plane of the goal line, which should have been ruled a touchdown by referee Walt Anderson's crew, but they gave no signal as such. The ball came free, but Lewis managed to retrieve it.
A challenge would have gone New England's way, but it ultimately didn't matter, as RB LeGarrette Blount punched it in on the very next play.
…I didn't agree with Anderson's crew calling DE Chris Long for a neutral zone infraction. Both Ryan and DE Trey Flowers jumped over the line of scrimmage before the snap, but got back in position without making contact with any Broncos. Flowers, though, may have been the guilty party, as his hands seemed to be on the ground over the line on the far side from where the flag was thrown. In any event, Long should not have been penalized.
…Flowers made amends for his team a few plays later, however. From a four-point stance at the tackle position, the end first engaged with the right guard, then shuffled to his left to take on the right tackle. Flowers then used a nice swim move over his opponent, which gave him a free path to the quarterback. Great coverage downfield by New England's secondary forced Siemian to hold onto the football longer than he'd have liked, giving Flowers the chance to race into the backfield and bring him down for an 8-yard loss. That was a prime example of an individual effort aided by good team defense.
…DE Jabaal Sheard got the second half started off positively for the Patriots' defense. On the first play of the third quarter, he bull-rushed the right tackle, driving the Bronco backward. As he got close to Siemian, Sheard shoved Donald Stephenson to the side and engulfed the QB for a 6-yard loss. Once again, tight coverage by the secondary helped create this sack, as Siemian had nowhere to throw downfield.
…Thuney's been solid as a rookie starter at left guard, but is still experiencing a few growing pains now and then. Another one came in the early third, when he allowed Brady to be sacked again, this time by OLB Shane Ray. A speedy swim move was the weapon of choice for the Bronco defender, up the middle. Brady had no chance on the play. To make matters worse, Thuney incurred a holding penalty while diving to try to prevent Ray from hitting his quarterback.
…RT Marcus Cannon's false start penalty was a legitimate one. He rocked forward slightly while in his three-point stance on 1st-and-10 from the NE 10 late in the quarter. Aside from that, though, Cannon played a terrific game.
…DT Malcom Brown's sack in the early fourth was due in large part to pressure on Siemian brought by Flowers. At the snap, Flowers was lined up as the right defensive end; Brown at left tackle. Flowers made a sweet swim move on LG Max Garcia, then used his speed to blow by the lineman. This caused both Garcia and LT Russell Okung to pursue Flowers, leaving an empty space on that side of the formation.
Brown spotted this and shuffled to his right before racing after his teammate. Flowers was a big overzealous and allowed Siemian to slip from his grasp, but the unmarked Brown was right there to finish him off.
…LB Kyle Van Noy is beginning to show why the Patriots traded for him mid-season. Sunday in Denver, he played his most significant role since arriving in Foxborough. Van Noy was second in total tackles with 6 and forced a fumble that Devin McCourty recovered on the last meaningful play of the game.
…Tremendous work by Lewis getting so many tough yards between the tackles Sunday afternoon. He's listed as 5-8, but trust me, he's not close to that. I'm 5-6 on the dot and he's shorter than me.
…Wonderful execution almost all day by the offensive line to block for Lewis on the ground. Throw Develin in that mix as well.
…It shouldn't be overlooked how great a job punting Allen did on Sunday. He helped give the Patriots defense a decided advantage in the field position battle.
…Last but not least, Stephen Gostkowski, perfect yet again on field goals and his lone PAT. Not only is the Patriots' defense getting stronger, their kicker regaining his Pro Bowl form, too, it seems. Couldn't happen at a better time.