The Patriots pulled off a thrilling last-second win over the Denver Broncos on Christmas Eve, as they got clutch contributions from some of their younger players, offering hope of a new emerging core that can help bridge the gap into 2024. Historically it's never been easy for New England to win in Denver, and this game bore many of the same characteristics of hard-fought contests of the past. It was a back-and-forth affair, with swings in momentum that started in the first few minutes of the contest with Bailey Zappe fumbling on the very first offensive play, but the defense responding with a four-down stand that prevented the Broncos from taking an immediate lead.
"We missed some, we made some, we made the ones we had to make so, really happy for the work all of the players and coaches put in and how resilient they were coming out here," said head coach Bill Belichick. "They were playing a team that's really been playing well lately. Like I said, got out to a rough start but we're able to settle down and play turnover-free after the first play and put a lot of defensive snaps out there. Had a couple big plays in the kicking game, both ways, but it was good to make them. It's good to come out of here and win."
At the forefront was the quarterback Zappe, who, in his fourth start, flashed awareness and athleticism that allowed him to extend plays in many of the game's most important moments. Zappe finished 25-of-33 for 256 yards and two touchdowns, with five plays of 20 or more yards that played a big part in the scoring drives. His 28-yard dime on 2nd-and-20 to Jalen Reagor set up the first points of the game for the Patriots, while his 41-yard pass to Demario Douglas on their first offensive play of the third quarter led to their first touchdown and established that this would not be a wilting second half like those of the last two weeks.
His third-down touchdown strike to Mike Gesicki in the third quarter was a play that summed up Zappe's performance, as he was able to avoid the rush, step up in the pocket and deliver a needed score as the game approached its exciting final quarter.
It wasn't all perfect. No one wants to start the game with a fumble on the first play and the offense had seven three-and-outs on the night, including three-straight in the fourth quarter. Luckily, they got back in gear for the final drive, which included an excellent clutch fade throw to DeVante Parker, as well as nine necessary yards on two final completions to Ezekiel Elliott and Mike Gesicki that set up the final game-winning field goal.
But at the final gun, the good outweighed the bad and was enough to give Zappe his second win as a starter in 2023 as he continues to make strides.
"There have been things on and off the field that I've looked back on that have improved," said Zappe following the win. "From a football aspect, from seeing the defenses and understanding pushing the ball down the field and being smart with the ball. Things that in the preseason and last year, I was a little lackadaisical. Those are things that I try to improve on every day and try to do better at. Off the field, just the preparation part. Watching film and understanding the game plan. Understanding how OB (offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien) is going to call the game and being on the same page with him. The more and more weeks go by, the more that we will get closer and closer."
On the defensive side of the ball, it was hard to miss third-year defensive lineman Christian Barmore who was a wrecking ball the entire night, finishing with three sacks. After battling injuries for much of 2022 and the early portion of 2023, Barmore has come on over the last three months, living up to the potential he flashed as a rookie with his aggressive and relentless pass-rush style. Perhaps most notable has been Barmore's improvement against the run. He played a career-high 60 snaps in Denver as he continues to round out his game and make all-around contributions.
"It was by far his best offseason," said Belichick following the game. "He's continued to train really hard which has kept him a little healthier. He's played a lot of football but he's been able to maintain that health and conditioning [because of] that offseason training. His lower body has really helped him with both conditioning and also just his explosive power. The experience has helped him. He did a good job tonight."
Finally, the contributions of three rookies played a big part in the win, though they were among eight total rookies who contributed.
"All the rookies have grown," said Belichick. "Every week, every game, every practice, it's all good for them. They just have to keep working hard and getting better. They all have a long way to go but just chipping away at it."
Demario Douglas had another productive game with five catches for 74 yards, a total that gave him the most catches by a rookie under Bill Belichick. None were bigger than the aforementioned 41-yarder, but two big catches on second-and-longs were also an impressive part of Douglas' night.
Marte Mapu forced his second takeaway in two games as he punched out the ball on a Denver kick return and it was recovered for a touchdown by Cody Davis. Those were critical points in the victory, as the rookie linebacker/safety hybrid is finding a way to make contributions and show growth.
But no rookie showed more resilience than kicker Chad Ryland, who overcame a nightmare first three quarters that included a missed 47-yard field and a missed extra point that could've cost the team the game. But those mistakes fell by the wayside as Ryland split the uprights from 56 yards out to give New England the win.
"Often times you find the greatest treasure in the darkest caves," said Ryland after the game. "I've obviously been struggling a little bit this year, and I was really fortunate to be surrounded by a team that believes in me and that helps me to continue to move forward with my process and then go ahead and knock that last one down the good snap, protection, and hold by Bryce."
The win featured the kind of complementary football the Patriots have been searching for all season, but it was an extreme kind of complementary. All three units had some ugly downs, but their perseverance and mental toughness enabled them to overcome those downs to deliver some of the most impressive ups of the entire year.
"All of our guys stepped up," said Belichick. "Parker obviously, [QB] Bailey [Zappe], [K] Chad [Ryland]. You need those plays at the right time. When you need to make them, you need to make them to win [and] tonight we made them. Unfortunately, there's been some other weeks where haven't been able to make them."