By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s never easy for the Patriots to go into Denver and emerge with a victory. And to be sure, Sunday’s win over the Broncos did not come easily.
But the Patriots hit the field Sunday afternoon and displayed extraordinary focus, allowing them to dominate the game and remain in control for the entirety of the second half.
Though it came against an opponent that’s slightly below the Super Bowl-caliber tier, it was thoroughly a championship effort from New England’s football team.
Certain aspects surely could have been better, but considering the variety of factors for this game (location, temperature, short week, altitude, etc.), it was a win that no doubt has every member of the Patriots roster and coaching staff feeling good on that long flight home.
It was a mostly positive afternoon up and down the board for the Patriots, so the disproportionate number of “Ups” and “Downs” will reflect that.
The Denver offense is, overall, a weak unit. Still, forcing that weak offensive team go three-and-out on five consecutive drives on their own field? That’s no small feat.
That’s what the Patriots’ defense did on Sunday in Denver, holding Denver to just nine total yards over their first five drives of the second half. Nine.
It was, really, a continuation from the end of the first half. The Broncos’ final two full drives of the first half ended with an interception and a punt. From the point of that interception to the end of the five straight three-and-outs, the Patriots’ offense slowly turned a 3-3 tie into a 16-3 lead.
Trey Flowers recorded two sacks, while Malcom Brown and Jabaal Sheard each had one apiece, while Logan Ryan made that crucial interception in the red zone.
But it was Devin McCourty who managed to encapsulate all the defense did in this game, when he drove through the back of an unsuspecting Demaryius Thomas to force an incompletion on a fourth-down attempt. In jarring the ball free from Thomas, McCourty ensured that Denver would not be making this game competitive in the final minutes.
Again, the opponent was not an explosive offense. But that kind of shutdown performance was impressive in its own right.
The offense began the game completely out of rhythm. Nothing was working. Tom Brady started the game 0-for-6.
Then, he looked for his friend, Julian. It was a wise move.
Following a sack on the Patriots’ first offensive play of the second quarter, Brady threw to Edelman, complete for 17 yards. Two plays later, Brady dropped a deep out into a bucket along the right sideline, and Edelman made an impressive toe-tapping catch in double coverage. Brady again went right back to Edelman for a 12-yard gain on the next play, and three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone with their only touchdown of the day.
By the end of the game, Edelman had six receptions for 75 yards, leading the team in both categories. He also fielded six Denver punts without incident, a feat which normally might get overlooked but did not in the wake of Cyrus Jones’ Monday night showing.
Last year, the Patriots lost four of their final seven regular-season games after losing Edelman. Games like this one, where Edelman is the most valuable player, explain how that happened.
In his first four games of action this season, Lewis averaged just under five carries per game as the Patriots eased him back into a normal workload as he worked back from last year’s knee injury.
On Sunday in Denver, Lewis’ shoulders were officially deemed ready to carry that regular workload, as he was handed the ball 18 times. He ran for 95 yards, besting his single-game career high of 69 yards, as the Patriots’ primary back.
Lewis did, technically, score a touchdown, but the officials on the field did not see the ball break the plane of the end zone. Bill Belichick elected to save his challenge, and LeGarrette Blount plunged in from the goal line on the following play.
Lewis’ work helped the Patriots win the time of possession battle, a particularly important element to a defensive struggle such as this one. His health provides yet another reason for the Patriots to feel optimistic as the season heads to Week 16.
He was mentioned earlier in the scope of the entire defensive effort, but he warrants the spotlight for the significance of that interception.
On the very first snap of the second quarter, with Denver facing a third-and-3 from the New England 14-yard line, Ryan covered Emmanuel Sanders as he broke his route to the left sideline. Ryan saw it coming, jumped the right, and made his interception look easy.
The actual act of making the pick might have been simple, but it was preparation and instinct that had Ryan in the right position.
“He threw a similar route to me earlier, and I just felt like it was third down and I wanted to play the sticks a little bit and play flat-footed,” Ryan said. “I just went with my gut, and it paid off.”
Ryan said that he had heard critics say “we suck” all year, and so the defense has set out to “prove something.”
“We’re having fun, man,” Ryan said. “We’re getting after the quarterback, we’re playing great defense, guys are feeding off each other, we’re joking a lot. So we’re just having fun playing ball right now. And it’s working.”
In addition to the interception, Ryan also forced an incompletion by pressuring Trevor Siemian on a blitz.
BONUS: Malcolm Butler
The cornerback’s stat line is not indicative of much. But it was the stat line of Emmanuel Sanders that tells the story of Butler’s day.
Sanders was coming off an 11-catch, 100-yard, one-touchdown performance last week, and on the year, he’s averaged 7.5 receptions for 96 yards per game.
On Sunday, Sanders caught three passes for 48 yards, due to the shutdown work of one Malcolm Butler.
BONUS: Stephen Gostkowski
Nobody has forgotten that Denver was the place where Stephen Gostkowski’s confidence was apparently broken. He missed the PAT last year in Denver in the playoffs, and his accuracy was way off to start the 2016 season.
But Gostkowski showed no after-effects in this one, going 3-for-3 in his field goal attempts and hitting his lone PAT. In a low-scoring game such as this one, the kicker’s importance rises above the norm. Gostkowski was critical to getting the win.
BONUS: LeGarrette Blount
The running back didn’t have an exceptional game. In fact, with an average of just 1.8 yards per carry, it was one of his worst games of the year.
But he did score the lone touchdown of the game, in the process setting a Patriots franchise record for most rushing touchdowns by any player ever. That’s really something.
BONUS: Ryan Allen
The punter’s work was exceptionally important on this afternoon, and Ryan was up to the challenge. He booted seven punts, gettingtwo downed at the 7-yard line and one downs at the 12-yard line.
The rookie lineman has been exceptional this year, and he’s also been an iron-man. But he surrendered two sacks on Sunday. The first — by Jared Crick — resulted in a Tom Brady fumble, which Thuney himself recovered. The second one came on a third down early in the second half, when Shane Ray blew past Thuney, who hauled the speeding rusher down the turf. It was enough to draw a flag, but not enough to stop Ray, who sacked Brady to force a punt.
James White dropped two passes early, helping to contribute to the slow start. Chris Hogan dropped a ball that hit him in the stomach on a third down — a pass that would have kept a drive alive and put the Patriots into field-goal range.
The sun was tough early on, which likely contributed to White’s drops. But drops are never ideal — especially on the road. If the Denver offense hadn’t been shut down so soundly, those mistakes would have likely been brought into focus a bit more.