DENVER — The Patriots’ game plan in Sunday’s 16-3 win over the Broncos was simple:
Do the exact opposite of what happened last year in their two trips to Denver.
It certainly wasn’t the prettiest offensive performance from the Patriots. Their 16 points and 313 total yards were their lowest output with Tom Brady behind center this season.
But the Patriots atoned for last year’s two losses in Denver by improving in the exact areas that hampered them.
“Not turning the ball over — that’s a good place to start,” Bill Belichick said.
The Patriots didn’t protect the football last year. Chris Harper muffed a punt that ignited the Broncos’ fourth-quarter comeback in the regular season, and Brady threw two interceptions in the AFC Championship game.
But on Sunday, the Patriots won the turnover battle 3-0. Julian Edelman cleanly fielded all seven punts, no small feat after the Cyrus Jones debacle against Baltimore. The Patriots were fortunate enough to recover both of their fumbles — one by Brady on a sack, one by Dion Lewis down by the goal line.
And Brady played one of his smartest games of the season, throwing the ball away several times when the rush was in his face. It didn’t put points on the scoreboard for New England, but it kept points off the scoreboard for Denver.
Brady was just 16 of 32 for 188 yards and no touchdowns, but the most important number was the zero interceptions.
“That’s why he’s our quarterback,” receiver Chris Hogan said. “He makes the right decisions, he makes the right plays, and he makes the big ones when we need it.”
The next place to turn to is the offensive line, which earned its redemption on Sunday.
The last time the Patriots played in Denver, Brady was hit a whopping 20 times — including four sacks — as Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware destroyed Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer.
But this time, Brady barely got any grass stains on his uniform. On 34 passing plays he took just five hits, including two sacks. Miller, the NFL’s leading sack master, was completely wiped out by Cannon, finishing with just five tackles and never once laying a finger on Brady. Ware was even worse, finishing with just half a tackle and nothing else on the stat sheet.
The Broncos lost a key piece when Derek Wolfe went down with a neck injury, and Shane Ray and Jared Crick did hit the Patriots for sacks. But the offensive line — which didn’t have Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, or David Andrews in the lineup last January (or offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia) — got its redemption.
“I think every year you never know how good your group is, and you’ve got to be put through the fire,” Solder said. “To come here into Denver and beat a good team I think is a good step on our way.”
Brady couldn’t stretch the field much in the passing game, but he didn’t really try to, either. Part of the game plan to avoid the Broncos’ pass rush was to get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. The Patriots had only one pass over 20 yards, a 34-yard play-action pass to Martellus Bennett. Otherwise, they relied on a steady diet of shallow crosses to Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, and James White, who were targeted on 23 of Brady’s 32 passes.
The Broncos’ excellent cornerbacks were frustrated that they didn’t get much action, as Brady targeted Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell only three times combined.
“It’s hard to make plays when we don’t get that many targets,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. “They didn’t really have to take a lot of chances.”
The offensive line, meanwhile, also helped the Patriots improve in a third key area: the running game.
It was nonexistent in last season’s AFC Championship game, as they ran just 17 times for 44 yards, with Brady dropping back to pass 60 times. But it was the focal point of the offense in Sunday’s win, and it was effective, if not always so pretty.
The Patriots actually called more runs than passes in this game, rushing 39 times for 136 yards. They only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, but most importantly, didn’t get behind the chains. The Patriots had one negative running play all day — a minus-2 yard run for Lewis in the first quarter. Add in two sacks and two penalties that pushed them behind first and 10, and the Patriots had just five negative plays in 77 offensive snaps (including penalties).
“Didn’t have a lot of negative plays in the running game — actually, not a lot of negative plays period for us, which was a lot different than the last time we played out here,” Belichick said. “At least we kept going forward, not going backward. It’s a good place to start.”
The Patriots were intent on establishing the run. On their 31 first-down plays, they called 19 runs and only 12 passes. The runs gained just 59 yards (3.1 average), but the Patriots at least kept the chains moving and put themselves in manageable situations.
Lewis, who was injured for both Denver games last year, churned out the toughest 95 yards of his career, slashing and jump-cutting between the tackles for a 5.3 average on 18 carries. LeGarrette Blount had only 31 yards on 17 carries, but he rammed the ball into the end zone for the Patriots’ only touchdown and kept the Broncos’ defense honest.
“We ran the ball enough to be able to keep running it, so that was different from other games we’ve seen,” Belichick said. “They’re a good run defense. Just try to bang it out.”
Brady had better stats the last time out here, throwing for 310 yards compared with 188 on Sunday. The Patriots gained more yards the last time, too, 336 compared with 313 this time around.
But this time, they protected the football, protected the quarterback, and ran the football. And they left Denver with a hat and a T-shirt, signifying a win and their eighth straight AFC East title.
“Not a masterpiece, but it’s what it needed to be,” Belichick said. “Needed a lot of tough yards, and that’s what we got today from Dion and LeGarrette and those guys up front.”