The Patriots beat the Broncos in Denver 16-3 on Sunday, securing a playoff bye and their NFL-record eighth consecutive division crown. The game was closer than the final score indicated. But the Pats won the turnover battle 3-0 and made key defensive stops to secure the victory.
The defense deserves the bulk of the credit for the win. They sacked Denver QB Trevor Siemian four times, allowed just 58 yards rushing, held the Broncos to 17% (2 of 12) on third-down conversions (2 of 12), and got two turnovers. And after yesterday’s three-points allowed, the rest of the league should be taking notice of a Pats defense that leads the league in fewest points allowed.
The play of the game was turned in by cornerback Logan Ryan. With the game tied and the Broncos driving, Ryan jumped a route at the Pats 10 yard-line and picked off a pass, returning the interception 46 yards to set up a short field for the Pats. And the offense didn’t miss the opportunity. They scored the only touchdown of the day to give the team all the points they’d need on the day.
On the other side, Malcolm Butler shut down dangerous receiver Emmanuel Sanders. He came into the game with 75 catches, but Butler jammed him at the line and stayed with him step-for-step all game long. Sanders’ first catch didn’t come until the fourth quarter. And in fact, he was the target on Ryan’s INT.
The Patriots interior defensive line frustrated the Broncos running schemes all day. Malcolm Brown, Alan Branch, and Trey Flowers made sure there were no cut-back lanes, and Denver rushed for a mere 58 yards on the day. Brown (1) and Flowers (2) accounted for three of the team’s four sacks, too.
Meanwhile, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long forced Siemian to move in the pocket enough to disrupt the timing on a half-dozen throws. And linebacker Kyle Van Noy and safety Patrick Chung either made tackles or funneled runners inside toward secondary help. It was a perfect example of what head coach Bill Belichick calls complementary defense.
On offense, the running backs did most of the damage. For the first time this season, LeGarrette Blount wasn’t the Patriots leading rusher; that honor went to Dion Lewis, who juked his way to 95 yards on 18 carries (5.3 ypc). He showed the same burst and shiftiness from last season, and his style was the change-up the Patriots needed to beat the Broncos defensive speed.
The Patriots needed the running game, because quarterback Tom Brady started the game 0-6 and had trouble finding open receivers all day. Brady ended up with his skimpiest stat line of the season, completing only 50% of his passes for 188 yards, zero touchdowns, and a QB rating of just 68.2.
However, Brady did avoid the big mistake, which might have been more important given the defensive dominance. He also used play-action fakes very effectively, and was adept in throwing the ball away so he was sacked just twice in the game.
The receivers had trouble getting open against the Broncos press-coverage, and the team became too dependent on wide-out Julian Edelman. He was targeted 12 times, catching six passes for 75 yards. After that, the drop-off was steep, with running back James White catching three passes and no one else getting more than two.
The offensive line gets a gold star for being most improved. In yesterday’s game, the Broncos had two sacks and five QB hits; in the AFC Championship Game in January, they had four and 20, respectively. Yesterday, tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon contained the outside rush, with chipping help from the tight ends and running backs.
Marcus Cannon did a great job slowing down Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, who registered no sacks or QB hits in the game. The commentators pointed out that Cannon played with his hands down until Miller engaged him, then he’d use his superior strength to push him back or angle him away from Brady. It was a great plan and execution by the coaching staff and Cannon. And eventually, Miller was pulled off the field on some downs, a rarity for him, as he usually plays about 90% of the defensive snaps.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski continued his improved run with three field goals and angled kickoffs. And the punt-coverage unit downed three punts inside the Broncos 20 yard-line, and even came up with a turnover on a muffed fair catch. Rookie Jonathan Jones recovered that fumble, and he is probably the second-best coverage player this year, after Matthew Slater.
So where does that leave us? This game was an excellent overall team victory in a place where the Pats have traditionally struggled. The Patriots are 12-2 and in the driver’s seat for the #1 overall seed in the AFC. The Jets game should be another win, although divisional tilts can be unpredictable.
However, even if the Patriots win in New Jersey, they will need a loss or tie by the Raiders to secure the #1 seed this coming weekend. Stay tuned for a playoff update today, including a break-down of potential NFC opponents.
Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Logan Ryan turned the tide with his interception and led the team with seven tackles.
Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady is 5-3 in his career when he posts a sub-70 QB rating without throwing an interception. All three losses have come against the Miami Dolphins.
Bonus Statistical Oddity: Broncos fans should not despair; the last three years in which the Patriots won in Denver, the Broncos made the playoffs (the 2000, 2003, and 2011 seasons).