DENVER – Face it, even in victory, this place is still Football Hades (thanks, Ron Borges).
Thin air and freezing cold. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller on the other side of the ball. Tom Brady misfired on his first six passes. Ugh. Here we go again.
To quote Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story, “Not today!”
The Patriot defense played one of its best regular season games in recent memory on Sunday at Invesco Field in Denver. Logan Ryan had a key interception early in the second quarter, Trevor Siemian was sacked four times, and Devin McCourty made the play of the game late in the fourth quarter by clobbering Demaryius Thomas on a fourth down play, sealing a 16-3 win. Despite the fact that the Patriots have won 5 of the last 6 regular season meetings with Denver, this was the first win in Denver by the Patriots since 2011. Brady improved to 4-7 in this city.
The victory by the Patriots clinched the AFC East title. It is the eighth straight division title for the Patriots, which is a new NFL record for consecutive division titles. With Kansas City losing to Tennessee, 19-17, the Patriots also clinched a first round bye with the win, the seventh straight year they have been either the one or two seed.
The Patriots have not yet clinched home field throughout the playoffs, but they have the inside track to do so. If the Patriots win out, they have the top seed, and they finish with the same two teams as last year, the Jets and Miami. The difference from last year is that the Jet game is at home, but they will finish this year in south Florida. If Oakland wins out and the Patriots lose one of their remaining games, the Raiders, who clinched their first playoff berth since 2002 on Sunday with a win at San Diego, would be the one seed and the Patriots the two seed. Oakland currently holds the tiebreaker over New England if they should finish with the same record.
Given the bizarre and maddening events of last year, it seems unlikely that the Patriots will stumble at the finish line like last year, losing three of their last four games including the AFC Championship Game here at Denver. Given the fact that the Patriots have just finished their most difficult two-game stretch of the season with wins over Baltimore and Denver within a six-day span, the Patriots have to be favored in the final two games. If the Patriots do finish with the top playoff seed, it seems that only an unforeseen catastrophe could prevent the Patriots from making the trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI.
The Patriots did just enough on offense to win on Sunday. (USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots were opportunistic all game long, and didn’t need a strong game numbers-wise from Brady to win. Following the opening drive of the game, the Patriots punted after a three and out. Jordan Norwood muffed the punt at the Denver 31, and Jonathan Jones recovered. Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 45-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 3-0 lead.
Two drives later, the Broncos would tie the game at 3-3 following the Patriot defense stopping the Broncos at the Patriot 15. But throughout the first quarter, the Patriot offense was stuck in neutral. Their only first quarter first down was because of a defensive penalty. For their last drive of the first quarter, Denver started at their own 7 after a nice punt by Ryan Allen, and drove to the Patriot 14 thanks to two nice completions to some tight end named Jeff Heuerman.
On the first play of the second quarter, Siemian tried to hit Emmanuel Sanders in the left flat. Ryan jumped the route, Siemian never saw him, and he picked off the pass and nearly had a pick-six. He was run down by Thomas after a 46-yard return. Brady cashed in that turnover with the only touchdown drive of the game, going 46 yards in seven plays with LeGarrette Blount plowing in from one yard out. The Patriots had two fumbles on that drive but recovered them both.
Blount’s touchdown set a new Patriot record with 15 rushing touchdowns in a single season, knocking Curtis Martin out of the record books.
Leading 13-3 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots sewed up the win with two huge defensive plays.
On the second offensive possession of the quarter, facing third down and one at their own 21, Trey Flowers burst through and got a hold of Siemian but whiffed on the tackle. Flowers slowed the Denver quarterback down enough so Malcom Brown could come in and finish off the sack. The ensuing punt gave New England great field position to enable Gostkowski to kick his third field goal of the game, a 21-yarder to make it 16-3.
Gostkowski was perfect on kicks on the afternoon. In the place where his missed extra point in the playoffs last year began his run of misfires in 2016, his perfection on Sunday is a very good sign.
Denver had 8:16 to put up two quick touchdowns and perhaps win 17-16. On the ensuing drive for Denver, Siemian drove the Broncos to the Patriot 30. On fourth down and two, rather than kick a field goal, head coach Gary Kubiak correctly went for it. Siemian lobbed a pass to the right side to Thomas, who caught the ball in stride. As soon as he caught the ball, he was bushwhacked from the backside by McCourty, dislodging the ball and ending the game, for all intents and purposes.
The Patriots managed to kill off all but 1:54 of the game clock, but Denver was out of timeouts. The win was sealed when Norwood, who muffed the punt in the first quarter, caught a nice slant pass but was smacked by Kyle Van Noy. Norwood coughed up the ball, McCourty recovered, ball game over.
Brady’s final passer rating was only 68.2, with 16 of 32 passing for 188 yards and no touchdowns. Dion Lewis was the offensive star for the Patriots with 95 yards rushing and a 5.3 average per rush. It was the defense that shined for the Patriots. Since these teams began playing in 1960, this was the first time ever that the Patriots held Denver to only 3 points in a single game.
The Patriots have to win their last two games, period. They have the Jets at home next weekend, and despite the plausibility that the Jets will play hard, it is a game the Patriots will be favored prohibitively to win. They cannot be caught looking ahead to Miami.
But they will savor this win now. This was a win without snapping a ball off the uprights, a win without Tim Tebow as the opposing quarterback. Richly satisfying, and perhaps a harbinger of great things to come.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary