Following their bye week, the Patriots went into the “House of Horrors” Sunday night and came out with a decisive 41-16 victory.
Leading up to the Denver game, injury news was at the forefront of the discussion. New England announced the returns of cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore, while ruling out Pro Bowl right tackle Marcus Cannon.
The Patriots received reinforcements in the form of tight end Martellus Bennett and defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois, both castoffs of the Green Bay Packers. The former tight end for the 2016 Patriots was reclaimed on waivers by New England after Bennett criticized the Packers organization for giving misinformation about his shoulder. Sources inside the Packers and Patriots speculated that Bennett had a serious shoulder injury not limited to a torn rotator cuff, and Bennett opted not to have shoulder surgery.
Bill Belichick holds special teams play in high regard and this week, it was the clear difference in the game. The Patriots started the game with a three-and-out, before recovering a fumble on Ryan Allen’s punt and scoring a play later. Dion Lewis returned the next kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown to put the Patriots up 14-3 early in the game, and Rex Burkhead blocked a punt later in the second quarter.
Burkhead was everywhere in this game, on special teams, catching passes, and on the ground as a complementary running back. He was used sparingly in the first few weeks of the season, but this was the week where Belichick unleashed him. With Cannon and Chris Hogan, two of New England’s best blockers, out Sunday, playing time was given to players who can block, such as Burkhead, fullback James Develin and tight end Dwayne Allen.
The ultimate goals on offense were to negate the game’s greatest edge rusher in Von Miller, and two of the game’s greatest cornerbacks in Aquib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. The first goal was accomplished by double-blocking Miller with LaAdrian Waddle and another nearby blocker. The second was also a success since Brady threw on any Denver defender not named Harris or Talib, and looked for one-on-one coverage for the tight ends and running backs. In the rare instances where Rob Gronkowski received single coverage, especially when Denver dialed up the blitz, Brady hit him in the numbers. Tight end Dwayne Allen even beat Von Miller for his first catch of the season, an 11-yard touchdown that put New England up 27-9 at halftime.
On defense, the Patriots played “bend, don’t break”, as Denver settled for field goals. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders single-handedly kept the Broncos alive in the first half with five catches over Malcolm Butler. The New England front seven pressured enough to force Brock Osweiler to throw the ball away, and that was all it had to do. Stephon Gilmore returned from injury and played brilliantly stiff man coverage on DeMaryius Thomas all night.
LaAdrian Waddle’s outstanding night at right tackle can be summated in Von Miller’s stat line: no sacks, one tackle, one QB hit. It was also a standout game for Nate Solder and the rest of the offensive line as they gave Tom Brady a clean pocket and more time than he needed to throw.
The Broncos scored in the third quarter to make it a 27-16 game, but the Patriots closed the gap with fourteen unanswered points.
The Patriots improve to 7-2 with a five-game winning streak, and they will travel south to Mexico City to face the Oakland Raiders next Sunday.
*Photo courtesy of NESN