The Patriots locked up the AFC East championship and a first round playoff bye with their 16-3 win over the Broncos, moving to 12-2 on the season, and putting to rest some of their Denver demons.
Yup, if you didn’t love the 2016 Patriots before impressive wins over Baltimore and Denver, you sure do now!
The victory was perhaps the most complete of the season, with the defense completely neutralizing Denver’s offense in the second half and becoming the top scoring defense in the NFL; the offense capitalizing in key spots while maintaining excellent balance; and the special teams generally dominating every hidden yard there was.
With just two games to go, the Patriots look as primed as ever to make a run at another Super Bowl. But they might need to win both to secure homefield.
More on the Pats’ playoff aspirations and a feel-great win over the Broncos…
First, the level of domination by the Pats under Bill Belichick is hard to fathom. This was the 13th division title in fourteen seasons (*No-Brady 2008), and eighth-straight AFC East crown, both records. It’s absurd how good the Patriots are, and another Super Bowl championship would put them into another stratosphere.
But let’s break down the Denver game before we get to that.
Offensively, the story was Dion Lewis as the lead back with a career-high 18 carries for 95 yards. I’ve always thought Blount does better when he comes in later, and Lewis is so slippery it puts defenders on their heels and sets them up for the hard-charging style of Blount. Lewis proved today that he can run in between the tackles and get those hard yards. This is an excellent development that only further rounds out the versatility of the offense.
The Patriots had to earn every yard against the Broncos’ defense, but their dedication to staying balanced paid off down the stretch. Especially when they iced the game with a 10-play, 44 yard drive that took four minutes off the clock. In the end, it was 38 rushing attempts, 32 passing attempts. Healthy touches for Lewis (20). Blount (17), and White (six). If they can keep this up Brady could play till he’s 50.
#Patriots set 3 NFL records today:
8-straight division titles
7-straight 1st round byes
TB12 now has 53 wins in December. Most in a month.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 19, 2016
The Broncos did a good job of mixing their coverages up, often confusing Tom Brady, but the Pats did what they always do, kept fighting and came through in enough big spots to get the win. The running game enabled that, keeping the Denver defense honest and unable to tee off on Brady in the pocket like they did last time.
Julian Edelman delivered a huge game, leading the team with six catches for 75 yards. The numbers aren’t flashy but on multiple key third downs, Edelman kept the chains moving and sparked the offense out of their early funk. The rest of the offense each came through with important contributions. Hogan had a tough drop, his first of the year, but had an 18-yard catch. Bennett, a key 34-yard catch.
Then there was the offensive line, who totally redeemed themselves from the struggles they had in Denver last January, led by Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder. Joe Thuney and the young interior guys had their struggles at times, but overall they did enough to get the job done. That’s as good a front as there is and it was an excellent tune up for the playoffs. I have full confidence in this offensive line to get the job done against any defense.
— Rob Ninkovich (@ninko50) December 19, 2016
The Patriots offense is as balanced as it’s been since 2004. Lewis, Blount and James White are all capable of making impact plays and all three receivers can play any receiver spot. They mix and match as they please and this do-anything offense is just hitting their stride. Add Amendola back in the mix for key third down passing plays and they’ll present a ton of problems for any defense they might face.
The defense, oh the defense. What a long strange season it’s been, from everyone freaking out they were the worst defense since 2005, only to turn into maybe their best defense since 2007.
What’s changed since the start of the season? Well, the takeaways and getting off blocks certainly help, but fundamentally they’re playing sound across the board now. The coverage, the rush, everything working in conjunction with each other, it’s all clicking. Even when there are breakdowns the damage in minimized.
The Broncos were 2-12 on third down, had just 58 rushing yards and were 0-2 in the red zone. They shut it down.
Trey Flowers has emerged as a true threat rushing from the interior, a threat the Pats have been searching far and wide for ever since Mike Wright retired. Flowers now leads the team with seven sacks and is clearly a building block at defensive end, one that they desperately needed. Everyone thought it would Jabaal Sheard, but not even his rotational resurgence can deny Flowers’ potential. And the good news with Flowers? We got him for two more seasons at less that $1 million per.
That’s back-to-back impressive performances for the defense, who should be making believers out of just about everyone by now. This was a fundamental Patriots BB/MP defensive game. Gave up some yards at times, tackled well, had a key takeaway, pressure on key third downs, and closed the game out with a fourth-down monster hit from Devin McCourty. It’s text book and that’s two weeks in a row.
So much love for Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, who are my favorite corner pairing since Law and Poole. Butler, so aggressive. Ryan, so steady, even when he messes up. Together, they’re a perfect combination. Add in McCourty playing the best ball of his life and Patrick Chung, the unstoppable tackling machine and the Pats’ secondary should be considered one of the best in the NFL.
One strange Bill Belichick Hoodie note — Belichick changed from a blue winter jacket into the 2016 Blue Hoodie at halftime. He had also changed his outfit in the ’15 AFCCG as well, going from the “Hot” Jacket in the first half to the 2015 Gray Hoodie in the second. Sometimes I think BB is just messing with me.
Special Teams deserves so much love for this one. First, Gostkowski hitting all three of his field goals (45, 40, 21). We all remember his XP miss in the ’15 AFCCG as the start of his struggles that carried over into 2016, but maybe this game wa sa sign that reliable Gost of old is back. He was clutch and made some difficult kicks.
Second, comes Ryan Allen and the punt team, who had just two of seven punts returned for a mere five yards. Allen put three inside the 20, two inside the ten. The Patriots special teams were a major difference in this game. Huge credit to Matthew Slater and Jonathan Jones especially.
The difference this time around in Denver was simple, and something I’ve been waiting for — they played a clean game. They didn’t turn the ball over, they didn’t blow any coverages, no muffed punts that totally swung momentum. They just played a straight-up game and, as expected, they came out on top. It wasn’t easy. But it was enough. And the defense’s stifling performance only ensured it.
Now, the last regular season home game of 2016, with a visit from Bryce Petty and the 4-10 Jets on Christmas Eve. It’s still an important game and injuries are more important than ever. To get out of Denver without somebody breaking something is a minor miracle.
Aside from Gronk, the Pats have had excellent injury luck so far this season and the playoffs are so close we can taste them. Please Football Gods, two more games, please!!!
A win from the Pats and an Oakland loss to the Colts would lock up home field advantage. That would be a wonderful thing to have before going down to Miami for the season finale. Who wouldn’t love to see one more Jimmy Garoppolo (partial) game this season? But there’s still every reason to hammer the Jets, who should be ready for the offseason after getting blown out by Miami.
14 games into the 2016 season we can put this Patriots team right amongst the other great championship contenders of the past. Maybe not as explosive as 2007 or defensively dominant as 2003, but as well-rounded as any of them, with perhaps the best three-headed backfield Bill Belichick has ever had.
Anything can happen in a playoff game, but the Pats have the experience and personnel to overcome anything from any team.