1. If you’ve ever required a reminder that an ugly victory and an immensely rewarding victory are not mutually exclusive, the Patriots’ 16-3 victory over the Broncos Sunday afternoon is the example you’re looking for.
Tom Brady did not throw a touchdown pass. The running game worked in fits and starts. The punter and kicker were among the chief standouts. And yet … man, this one feels good, doesn’t it, Patriots fans?
Not only did it lock up the Patriots’ eighth straight AFC East title, clinch a first-round bye for the seventh straight year, and also assure them of a seventh straight year with at least a dozen wins, but it came against a team that has been a consistent nuisance during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, especially on their own turf.
The Broncos had won five of the previous six meetings at their place, including three postseason matchups. The Patriots’ one win in that span came when future Gulf Coast League All-Star Tim Tebow was the Broncos’ quarterback. The previous win before that, in 2003, they needed the aid of an intentional safety.
We’ve learned the truth through the years: Any win in Denver is hard-fought and tough to come by, and therefore it is immensely satisfying no matter the aesthetics. This performance as it was unfolding was beautifully hideous, or perhaps hideously beautiful, but the end result could not have been lovelier. Celebrate it — as if you need to be reminded of that, too.
2. Brady’s final numbers were something less than the gaudy stats usually associated with his name. He started slowly, missing on his first six throws, and had just 73 passing yards at halftime. Overall, he finished 16 of 32 for 188 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. Nothing spectacular — but there were moments of subtle genius along the way, including a soft-touch completion on a third down to Julian Edelman in the third quarter that maybe three other active quarterbacks would have had the presence of mind to make.
3. Brady’s internal clock did seem to be running a split-second fast, and you can’t really blame him given the throttling he absorbed against the Broncos the last time he saw them. There were a couple of early throws that might have been completions had he held on the ball just a tick longer. Then again, he was under steady pressure for much of the half, though I wouldn’t call it under siege. Marcus Cannon, an overrun turnstile in the AFC Championship game, did a decent job getting in Von Miller’s way and shepherding him wide of Brady.
4. If you’ve been waiting for the Patriots to unleash Dion Lewis, this was the day. He had 18 carries — as many as he had in his previous four games since returning from a knee injury — for 95 yards, and also picked up nine yards on two catches. He would have had a touchdown if not for the false perception that he fumbled near the goal line on the Patriots’ first touchdown drive — fellow running back LeGarrette Blount instead punched it in on the next play. Lewis is officially back, and his usage Sunday probably foreshadows how he’ll be deployed in the postseason.
5. That touchdown was Blount’s 15th on the ground this season, breaking the record set by Curtis Martin in 1995 and again in ’96. Martin was my favorite Patriots player back in the days when I had such things, but Blount is a more than worthy successor to his longstanding record. Frankly, the hard part is acknowledging just how longstanding it was — Curtis Martin’s rookie season was 21 years ago? How can that be?
6. Blount has 265 carries for 1,060 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Who would have guessed in August that he should have been a first-round pick in fantasy football this year?
7. I always intend to give Ryan Allen his due in this space after one of his standard dependable-to-excellent punting performances, and I almost always forget to do it. Sunday, though, I couldn’t overlook his contributions even if I had an anti-punter bias: Allen was superb, putting three of his seven punts inside the 20, and coming close on a couple of others. The Patriots won the game in large part because they consistently won the battle for field position. Allen was crucial in making both happen.
8. It wasn’t especially flashy or ferocious, but the Patriots defense completely shut down the Broncos in the second half. When Denver took over with nearly 13 minutes remaining in the third quarter, trailing 13-3, they had been held to 24 yards on 12 plays in the half at that point. And that drive, if you want to call it that, ended with the Broncos punting from inside their 5. I’m still not sure if the Patriots defense has an identity, and you know what? I’m not sure they need one. This is two games in a row now against playoff-level competition in which they’ve done everything they need to do. That might be enough to get them where they want to go.
9. It became obvious pretty early that this was going to be one of those occasional Brady-era games where the offense was going to require some big-play assistance from the defense. Logan Ryan — a player I hope is back with the Patriots next year despite his inconsistency — literally stepped up, hopping in front of Emmanuel Sanders in the red zone to pick off a telegraphed Trevor Siemian throw and take it back to the Denver 46. That was what they needed when they needed it.
10. The pass rush is getting better — the apparently reinvigorated Jabaal Sheard seemed to put in more than a cameo in the Denver backfield Sunday — but if there is a defining characteristic of this defense right now, it’s a fundamental but important one: Their defensive backs, to a man, are terrific tacklers, especially after a completion. And occasionally, they do deliver a huge hit in a big situation. Devin McCourty buried Demaryius Thomas on third down on the Broncos’ last-wheeze drive in the fourth quarter, leaving the ball and the receiver rolling around on the turf.
11. The Patriots’ defensive backs certainly are more poised than their Denver counterparts. With just under four minutes left, T.J. Ward — you know his history — picked up Julian Edelman and spun him to the turf, then flexed his muscles as the flags flew. As Edelman and Ward jawed at each other, Aqib Talib stepped in to offer his insights. I don’t know, maybe Harry Douglas wasn’t totally in the wrong last week against this crew.
12. Stephen Goskowski’s early field goal to put the Patriots up 3-0 was both frustrating and satisfying at once. It was frustrating because the Patriots couldn’t turn Jordan Norwood’s fumble into seven points despite recovering the football at the Denver 31. It was satisfying because Gostkowski drilled the 45-yarder right down the middle. I believe in him, but you have to admit he’s accompanied by some suspense every time he lines up for a kick right now.
13. Gostkowski is having steadier days now — he hit all six of his kicks two weeks ago against the Rams, including three field goals of more than 40 yards. But this might have been his most important performance of the season. In a tight slog of a game in which every point mattered, he nailed an early 45-yarder for a 3-0 lead, then a 40-yarder in the third quarter that put the Patriots up 13-3. His final field goal was a 21-yard punctuation mark late in the fourth quarter.
14. James White caught 5 passes on 16 targets in January’s AFC Championship Game. Sunday, he didn’t have a catch on four targets in the first quarter. Might be time to start throwing to someone with a better than 1-in-4 catch-to-target ratio.
15. A.J. Derby has the hands of a converted quarterback but carries himself like he’s already accomplished something in the league. The winner of the Zach Sudfeld Fool’s Gold Award as an out-of-nowhere preseason stalwart who is inevitably headed back to nowhere once the games matter had a huge drop on the Broncos’ first possession of the second half. Derby was traded from the Patriots to the Broncos in October.
16. The CBS broadcast had very sensitive field microphones, especially on kick and punt coverage for some reason. Hopefully not too many sensitive ears were offending by the revelation that NFL players know lots of swear words and dispense them frequently and creatively. Who knew?