Few teams prioritize the importance of special teams across the NFL like the New England Patriots, and that mentality was on full display in tonight’s 41-16 win over the Denver Broncos.
The Patriots (7-2) recovered a fumble on a punt, returned a kick for a touchdown and blocked a punt – all in the first half – to hand Denver its fifth straight loss while keeping pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the top seed in the AFC.
So much for Sports Authority Field at Mile High being a house of horrors for the Patriots.
It’s the second year in a row now New England has gone into Denver and won with relative ease, following last year’s 16-3 victory.
Initially, it seemed as though an easy game wasn’t in the cards for the Patriots. The team quickly went three-and-out on the opening series of the game, showing signs of rust off the bye week.
All it took was a Broncos miscue on Ryan Allen’s punt to shatter that narrative.
Isaiah McKenzie muffed the kick as both Brandon King and Jacob Hollister closed in on him, with the undrafted rookie Hollister falling on the ball at the Denver 24-yard line to give New England a short field to work with. Sure enough, Tom Brady connected with Rex Burkhead on an angle route out of the backfield two plays later to give the Patriots the lead for good.
Off a Brandon McManus 39-yard field goal to get Denver on the board, Dion Lewis erased any momentum the Broncos had gained by returning the ensuing kickoff 103 yards to the house. Lewis broke a number of tackles as he tiptoed up the left sideline to make it 14-3 New England after a Stephen Gostkowski PAT.
Amazingly enough, the Patriots still weren’t done wreaking havoc in the all-important third phase of the game. McManus and Gostkowski had traded field goals for a 17-6 score with 10:44 to go in the second quarter and after the next Broncos possession failed to materialize, punter Riley Dixon took to the field to pin the New England deep.
Dixon’s kick never took off, however, as Burkhead broke through to block the kick and leave Denver flummoxed even more.
Just for good measure, the Broncos were caught with 12 men on the field on special teams in the fourth quarter as Allen lined up for just his second punt of the game for the Patriots to complete the Mount Rushmore of special teams blunders for Denver. The penalty gave New England a first down.
Not to be lost in New England’s excellence on special teams was a banner night for the Patriots offense. After being held under 30 points in four consecutive games for the first time since 2001, Brady and New England broke through for a season-high in points with 41.
Brady was dynamite throughout, completing 25 of 34 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns to no interceptions, upping his season total to a stellar 19-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Things got so out of hand that Brian Hoyer saw game action for the Patriots for the first time since 2012 and didn’t look too shabby himself, completing all three of his throws.
In addition to his touchdown pass to Burkhead, Brady threw another one to James White but more improbably, to Dwayne Allen.
To say it’s been a rough first season for Allen in Foxboro would be an understatement. Entering tonight’s game he had a grand total of zero catches and hadn’t even been targeted by Brady since Week 4.
With the Patriots up 20-9 and the first half winding down, Allen finally parted with the monkey on his back and made his catch count. Allen became the 70th player (including the postseason) to catch a touchdown pass from Brady and more importantly, send New England into the locker room with a 27-9 edge.
Denver’s return for the second half was if nothing else respectable, as Brock Osweiler engineered a 13-play, 76-yard scoring drive to inch closer at 27-16.
In the process, however, the Broncos chewed up 7:06 of game clock. The Patriots response was less than half that time, a seven-play, 75-yard drive which featured a pair of deep balls to Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks before Lewis finished things off with an 8-yard touchdown run for his second score of the night.
In continuing with the theme of special teams, Gostkowski had a nice return to form for the Patriots, nailing both of his field goal attempts and all five of his PATs. He struggled prior to New England’s bye week, missing a pair of field goal attempts.
The Patriots have now won five games in a row following a 2-2 start and have allowed 17 points or fewer in all five games. New England is also now 13-5 coming off a bye under Belichick.
The Patriots are off to Mexico next weekend, where they’ll face the Oakland Raiders at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City at 4:25 p.m.