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DENVER – This isn’t to say the New England Patriots didn’t need Tom Brady Sunday night in their 41-16 win against the Denver Broncos, but by the time the quarterback took the field for the Patriots’ second drive, New England had already jumped to a 14-3 lead, thanks to a pair of special teams plays.
That Brady went on to throw three touchdowns was just a bonus for a New England team that has now won five consecutive games and looks very much like a Super Bowl contender once again.
Sunday’s game should serve as a reminder that even though New England’s defense still appears vulnerable at times – they allowed Brock Osweiler and the Broncos to rack up 335 yards – the Patriots are good enough on offense, and great enough on special teams, to control games.
The Patriots scored 24 points off Denver’s special teams gaffes Sunday night, enough to beat the Broncos on their own.
New England recovered a muffed punt deep in Denver territory, setting up a touchdown, and scored on a 103-yard kickoff return by Dion Lewis in the first quarter. The Patriots also blocked a Broncos punt to set up a field goal in the second quarter, and Denver gifted New England another touchdown opportunity after lining up with 12 men on a fourth-quarter punt.
Brady answered with a touchdown pass to running back James White seven plays later.
It was no fluke that special teams played such a significant role for the Patriots Sunday night – it has long been a strength of Belichick’s teams, and recently has been a major weakness for the Broncos.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick knew that Broncos punt returner Isiah McKenzie had muffed five previous punts, and his coverage unit was coached to swarm. And while Lewis and the kickoff return squad figured they might have limited opportunities for a return, when the ball failed to clear the end zone, Lewis was ready for an aggressive return straight up the gut of the Broncos coverage team.
“That was pretty sweet, and then the blocked punt was great and set us up for a great field position,” Brady said. “Those were two huge plays. It makes them defend those things and hopefully that can set up other things down the road.”
set up other things down the road.”
Playing with an early lead allowed Brady the freedom to exploit the weakness of the Broncos’ defense, notably their inability to cover tight ends over the middle of the field and to match up with running backs in pass routes. Brady routinely found the mismatch, from Lewis in the flat against a Broncos linebacker, running back Rex Burkhead on a crossing route against a safety, or even to tight end Dwayne Allen against the Broncos best player, linebacker Von Miller, who dropped into coverage.
On Allen’s play, Miller was even flagged for holding, but the tight end caught the ball in the end zone anyway – his first reception of the season.
That sort of game plan – and certainly Brady’s mastery of it – allowed the Patriots to largely negate what Denver’s defense does best: covering wide receivers one-on-one, and allowing Miller to rush the passer.
The Broncos sacked Brady just once (on a blitz by safety Justin Simmons), and Brady threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns – all to tight ends or running backs.
“They play a lot of man coverage, so if a linebacker is matched up against us, we just want to win that match up,” Patriots running back James White, who scored on a six-yard pass, said.
Rather than flying home to Massachusetts on Sunday night, the Patriots boarded buses for a drive about one-hour south to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where they’ll practice this week leading up to next Sunday’s game against the Raiders in Mexico City.
Players said it will be concentrated time to review not just Sunday’s game in Denver, which might have been their most complete win of the season, but examine to also examine the team they’ve become in recent weeks.
“I don’t think it’s been perfect, and I think we have pretty high expectations for what we’re trying to do offensively,” Brady said. “It looks pretty good, and it’s probably been more uneven for the first eight games of the year, and tonight was a really good night for us. Hopefully we can build on this tonight and gain some confidence in all three phases.”
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
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