Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

Patriots 41, Broncos 16: 10 quick observations from blowout win on road

Ryan Hannable
November 12, 2017 - 11:41 pm

The second half of the season got off to a good start for the Patriots.

Not only did New England play arguably its best game of the season, it was aided by a number of Broncos miscues including allowing a kick return for a touchdown, fumbling a punt and getting a punt blocked. It’s hard to win any NFL game when having these things happen, but virtually impossible when facing the Patriots.

The Patriots rolled to a 41-16 win in Denver on Sunday night, which was their fifth straight win to keep pace with the Steelers for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. It was also the Patriots' 12th straight road win.

Here are 10 quick observations from the game.

1. Special teams was the big story in this one. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown in the opening quarter, which came a little after the Patriots recovered a muffed punt following their first drive of the game. They weren’t done there as they also blocked a punt later in the half. New England always has one of the best special teams units in the league, and it really showed up Sunday night.

2. The offensive line did a great job against the strong Denver pass rush, which paved the way for Tom Brady to have a terrific game. The 40-year-old went 25-for-34 with 266 yards and three touchdowns. Typically, Brady struggles in Denver so this was a big change from the past. Brady completed passes to nine different receivers, including six receivers having at least three catches.

3. Only three healthy active receivers? No problem. Josh McDaniels had a great gameplan to make do without Chris Hogan with the running backs having a big role. Mike Gillislee was a healthy inactive, but Rex Burkhead, James White and Lewis all played a major part in the win. Burkhead finished with 36 yards rushing to go along with three catches and a receiving touchdown. Besides his kickoff return for a touchdown, Lewis added 55 yards rushing and a touchdown, and last but not least White had a touchdown catch in the second half.

4. After being claimed off waivers by the Patriots on Thursday, Martellus Bennett was active. He played two snaps in the first half and had catches on both of them before going to the blue medical tent behind the bench. He played sparingly after that and it’s not known if his injury was related to the reported torn labrum and torn rotator cuff he’s reportedly playing with, but he did finish with three catches for 38 yards.

5. If there was one concern from the game it was the play of Malcolm Butler. He drew the assignment of Emmanuel Sanders and the Broncos wideout had his way with him. Sanders finished with six catches for 137 yards. Butler just didn’t seem like himself where not only was he putting himself into bad positions, he wasn’t making plays on the ball when he did put himself in a good position. Unlike the past couple of years, teams are no longer afraid to throw at Butler. Stephon Gilmore returned to the lineup after missing three games and was up-and-down.

6. Besides the damage Sanders was able to do, the Patriots defense had another strong performance continuing its recent upward trend. After struggling in the first four weeks with the worst defense in football, over the last five games, the Patriots have allowed an average of 13.4 points per game.

7. A major emphasis of the bye week was the Patriots’ red zone play and it appeared much improved Sunday night. The unit finished 4-for-6 on red zone trips after coming into the game at 50 percent. The biggest bright spot in the red area was seeing Dwayne Allen get his first catch of the year on a touchdown reception in the second half.

8. The Patriots defense seemed to blitz more than in games past. The pressure came from up the middle as on a few occasions as David Harris and Elandon Roberts were set free. For as much as it did blitz, the defense could have done it on even more plays with how bad Brock Osweiler is when under pressure. Historically, Matt Patricia’s defenses don’t blitz much, but when they do it usually is effective. 

9. There was one negative from the contest as the team lost special teams ace Matthew Slater to a hamstring injury. He was originally listed as doubtful to return, but ruled out shortly into the second half. This is not a good sign as a hamstring injury forced him to miss the first four games of the season. Certainly, the special teams stepped up in his absence on Sunday, but if he is forced to miss significant time again, his presence will sorely be missed.

10. The Broncos are officially done. Denver has now lost five straight games and is now 3-6 on the year with not much shot at making the postseason. The defense seemed to give up a bit in the second half. It appears the AFC is now officially between the Patriots, Chiefs and Steelers, with the Patriots currently tied with Pittsburgh for the top overall seed in the AFC with seven weeks remaining.

The Patriots scored in the final minute of the half for the seventh time in in 2017, including the sixth straight game.

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