By The Sports Xchange
DENVER — In a celebratory post-game locker room, New England Patriots’ players donned hats proclaiming them as AFC East champions. But the team remained mindful that it’s another ring that they are after.
Quarterback Tom Brady led four scoring drives — two after turnovers — and New England’s defense kept the Denver Broncos out of the end zone Sunday in a 16-3 victory that clinched the Patriots’ eighth straight division title and the playoff berth that goes with it.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s a lot of hard work going all the way back to the offseason program, OTA’s, and training camp. We’ve won a lot of tough games, a lot of games on the road, which is always hard to do. This is another one.
“We still have more we can accomplish. Our goals can be reset now, but that was the first one, to win the division. It’s something to be proud of.”
Stephen Gostkowski finished three of those drives with field goals, the last a 21-yarder with 8:16 remaining. LeGarrette Blount capped the other with a 1-yard touchdown run in a game that was largely a defensive struggle.
“We just wanted to stay patient and execute and ultimately we scored enough points to win the game,” Brady said. “It could always be better. It could have been better today, but I’m happy we won.”
Brady finished 16 of 32 for 188 yards and it was enough for New England (12-2) to retain its hold on the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed with two games left in the regular season. It was a rare win in Denver for Brady, who improved to 3-7 lifetime in the Mile High City.
New England set an NFL record with the eighth consecutive division title.
“This is just one strep here,” Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan said. “This feels great but we’ve still got a couple of games left and hopefully some more after that.”
The mistake-prone Broncos (8-6) lost their hold on the sixth and final wild-card berth. They need help and in all likelihood wins in their final two games, against AFC West rivals Kansas City and Oakland, to reclaim a postseason berth and the chance to defend last season’s Super Bowl title.
“I can’t sit here and tell you what all the scenarios are, but if we don’t find a way to win 10 games, we’re not going to have an opportunity,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “We all understand that. We’ve all understood that from the get-go.”
Siemian finished 25 of 40 for 282 yards, hamstrung by an ineffective rushing attack and failing to get his offense on track against the Patriots. He also had a costly interception.
“Frustrating, no doubt,” Siemian said. “Especially earlier on when we were moving the ball really well and have no points to show for it. A lot of that’s on me. Missed a couple of opportunities to get us points early on, and that comes back to haunt you, for sure.”
Denver’s final possession in the final moments ended when wide receiver Jordan Norwood, who muffed a punt earlier in the game, fumbled at the end of a pass reception. Safety Devin McCourty recovered for New England and Brady came onto the field to take a knee, running out the last few seconds to secure the victory.
Struggling to move the ball consistently against the Broncos’ stout defense, the Patriots added a second field goal by Gostkowski with 5:28 left in the third quarter to take a 13-3 lead after Brady’s third-down pass fell incomplete.
The Patriots led 10-3 at halftime, with both scores coming after Denver turnovers.
Siemian drove the Broncos to the Patriots’ 14-yard line but his third-down pass in the flat was behind the intended target, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and cornerback Logan Ryan swooped in to pick it off, returning it 46 yards to Denver’s 44-yard line.
Brady, who misfired on his first six passes, went 4-for-4 for 57 yards on the drive to help set up Blount’s short scoring run. It came early in the second quarter, one play after running back Dion Lewis recovered his own fumble just outside the goal line.
Gostkowski’s 45-yard field goal was set up when Norwood muffed the first punt of the game. Defensive back Jonathan Jones recovered at the Denver 31, but New England settled for the field goal after Lewis’ third-down run was stopped short of the first down.
NOTES: LB Brandon Marshall (hamstring) was among Denver’s inactive players. … The Patriots were without WR Danny Amendola, who missed practice time this past week because of an ankle injury. … Denver lost TE Virgil Green in the first quarter, when he suffered a concussion. … Denver defensive end Derek Wolfe left in the second quarter with a neck injury and did not return. … RB LeGarrette Blount’s second-quarter touchdown run was his NFL-high 15th rushing touchdown of the season. It is also a single-season team record for the Patriots.