The Patriots exorcised some demons in Denver on Sunday afternoon with a hard-fought 16-3 victory over the Broncos. It was an old-school win that featured plenty of defense and the running game as the Patriots captured the AFC East title and a first-round bye.
Here are some random thoughts from the victory.
No rest for defense – The much-maligned Patriots defense has really turned its season around, continuing their strong play of late with a dominant effort in Denver. The Broncos got off to a strong start with a pair of long drives in the first quarter, but after surrendering a field goal Logan Ryan changed the complexion of the game. He stepped in front of Emmanuel Sanders and picked off a Trevor Siemian pass and returned it 46 yards to halt the drive. From that point on the Patriots completely shut down Denver and pitched a shutout the rest of the way. Denver managed just 310 yards of offense with 143 of those coming in the first quarter. The performance was enough to overtake Seattle as the top scoring defense in the NFL.
Butler did it – One of the key factors to the defensive excellence was Malcolm Butler's excellent coverage working against Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders is a difficult cover and he's done plenty of damage against the Patriots in the past but he was shut out for the first three quarters before finishing with three catches for 48 yards, all coming after the outcome had been decided.
Staying on the run –In last year's AFC title game the Patriots attempted 60 passes as Tom Brady was under siege all game long. That script changed this time around as it was the ground game that managed to keep the offense afloat. Although the production wasn't always great, Josh McDaniels stuck with the run and did so in a rather unconventional way. Instead of LeGarrette Blount opening the game as the lead back it was Dion Lewis handling those duties. Normally when Lewis runs it's out of spread formations but in Denver he often lined up behind fullback James Develin with tight ends Martellus Bennett, Matt Lengel and at times Cameron Fleming. Blount did not play on the first two series but did manage 17 carries but picked up just 31 yards while Lewis led the way with 18 carries for a career-high 95 yards.
Incredelman – Things haven't always been smooth for Julian Edelman this season. The slot receiver has had occasional troubles catching the football and has battled foot problems periodically as well. That wasn't the case on Sunday in Denver as Edelman pretty much represented the offense for large stretches of the game. He made an amazing catch near the sideline early in the second quarter for 17 yards and finished with six receptions for 75 yards. He also handled the punt return duties in place of the inactive Cyrus Jones and averaged 7 yards on three attempts including a 16-yarder.
Questionable call – The Patriots used a rather conservative approach on offense for most of the day but for whatever reason they got away from that early in the fourth quarter. With Denver's offense doing nothing and the Patriots doing just enough to maintain a 13-3 lead, New England took over with 13:30 to go in the game and decided to get away from the run. Taking over at their own 35 the Patriots chose to call three straight passes and Brady was under pressure on all three. The first two resulted in hurried throwaways and on third-and-10 he was forced to quickly dump one off to James White for just 4 yards. Instead of sticking with the run and taking some time off the clock, McDaniels opened things up and wound up taking less than 40 seconds off the clock. That opened the door slightly for Denver to mount a comeback but the Patriots defense made sure that never happened.
Holding down the East – For the eighth straight year the Patriots captured the AFC East division and in doing so earned a first-round bye for the seventh consecutive season. The eight consecutive division titles in a new NFL record, topping the Rams streak of seven set from 1973-79. This also marks the 16th division title since 1994, which is five more than Pittsburgh and Green Bay in that timeframe. In earning their 12th victory of the season the Patriots have now won at least that many game seventh straight years. Finally, Bill Belichick won his 14th AFC East title, the most ever by an NFL coach.
Extra points – Blount picked up his 15th touchdown of the season, setting the team single-season record. Curtis Martinhad 14 in 1995 and 1996. … Brady improved to 53-10 (.841) in the month of December and he's also thrown just two interceptions all season. Trey Flowers recorded two sacks for the third time in 2016. He had two sacks in back-to-back games at Buffalo and vs. Seattle. … Jonathan Jones earned his first career start as the nickel back. … Shea McClellin lined up in the slot on offense for one play in the first quarter. He ran straight into the backfield in some sort of trick formation.