Dec. 18, 2011.
Entering Sunday, that date stood as the last time the New England Patriots had defeated the Denver Broncos at Mile High. But after three consecutive losses there, including two in the AFC Championship Game, New England got back on the other side of the ledger Sunday with a 16-3 win in Denver.
The Patriots secured the AFC East and locked up a first-round bye in the process, while pushing the Broncos to an 8-6 record and out of the conference’s sixth and final playoff seed for the time being.
And with that, here’s a numbers glance at what transpired during the frigid hat-and-t-shirt afternoon.
Tom Brady began 0-for-6 passing against the Broncos on Sunday, and went the entirety of the first quarter without a completion. But the Patriots quarterback hit wideout Julian Edelman for his first successful pass with 14:05 left in the second, and got back up to speed by connecting with his targets for five more in a row from there.
Ending Brady’s string of incompletions some 16 minutes into action was Edelman. The Patriots wide receiver was turned back to again and again thenceforth, concluding Sunday having accounted for 40 percent of Brady’s passing yards on a total of six receptions. No other New England pass-catcher would exceed 35 yards receiving versus Denver. Fellow wideouts Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell were limited to 32 yards combined.
Brady had won just two of the nine games he had started under center in Denver. By the time the clock hit zeroes on Sunday, he’d improved that record to 3-7. Brady finished 16-of-32 for 188 yards along the way to the Patriots’ first victory at Mile High in five years, so it is fair to say that style points weren’t a key part of the gameplan against a Broncos defense that had conceded a lead-leading 183.5 aerial yards – as well as a second-ranked 38 sacks – on the year.
Although the aerial output was not prolific versus Denver, Brady did manage to go over 3,000 passing yards on the season for the 14th time in his career. That milestone ties him with the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees for third third-most in league history. He’s got 3,064 through 10 contests.
Denver running backs Justin Forsett and Devontae Booker combined to rush for 54 yards on 16 carries versus the Patriots, which now stands as the second-fewest rushing yards from a Gary Kubiak-coached backfield facing New England’s defense since 2000. Heading into Sunday, Kubiak’s Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans backs had tallied 1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns on 358 carries over 14 meetings with the Patriots over that 17-season span, good for an average of 4.41 yards per carry, 112.9 yards per game and 1.35 touchdowns per game.
Broncos tight end AJ Derby, who was sent to Denver from New England in exchange for a fifth-round pick leading up to the trade deadline in October, picked up 35 receiving yards against his former team. The 2015 sixth-round selection via Arkansas, Coffeyville Community College and Iowa did so four receptions, netting a long of 16 yards.
Since being activated from physically unable to perform, Dion Lewis had rushed for 88 yards through his first four appearances of the season. That spiked in his fifth appearance, as New England’s spark-plug tailback rushed for seven more yards than he had altogether in 2016. His 95 yards, as well as 18 carries, versus the Broncos register as career-highs.
For 13 games, rookie guard Joe Thuney was the only member of the Patriots to play every snap on his respective side of the ball. That ironman streak ended during the first half of action at Sports Authority Field, as the third-round pick subbed out for linebacker Shea McClellin when New England went for a four-lineman look with an ineligible receiver. Thuney had logged all 902 offensive snaps for the Patriots entering Week 15.
Logan Ryan had seen 406 days pass since his last interception. But on the opening play of the second quarter Sunday, the Patriots cornerback jammed and jumped Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders’ out route for his first pick since Week 9 of the 2015 season against the Washington Redskins. A 42-yard return to set up a touchdown was the result.
LeGarrette Blount now finds himself in a company of his own. A week after tying Hall of Famer Curtis Martin’s 14 rushing touchdowns – set in 1995 and 1996 – for the most in franchise history, the 6-foot, 250-pound Patriots back crossed through the end zone on a one-yard run in the second quarter for his 15th TD of the campaign. The 30-year-old has been held scoreless in only three of New England’s games this season, and eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing for the second time in his career last week against Baltimore.
When the Patriots fell to the Broncos in last January’s AFC title bout, Brady was the team’s leading ball-carrier with 13 yards. The backfield committee of Steven Jackson, Brandon Bolden and James White, meanwhile, mustered just 31 yards on 14 carries. What a difference 11 months – not to mention a clean bill of health – can make. This time around, the Patriots’ backfield of Lewis, Blount and White collaborated for 106 more rushing yards than the last meeting and notched the aforementioned touchdown on 38 total carries.
By hitting home on Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian twice, Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers now checks in with a team-leading seven sacks on the season. All seven have arrived in the team’s last seven games. Prior to then, the 2015 fourth-round pick out of Arkansas had none on his regular-season NFL resume.
The Patriots locked up their seventh consecutive first-round playoff bye on Sunday, but we’ll give No. 7 to Flowers here and set No. 8 aside for the organization as a whole. That’s because New England has now won the AFC East for the eighth season in a row. The 2008 season, which ended with an 11-5 record with Matt Cassel at quarterback, is the last time the Patriots were unable to earn themselves the division crown.
From the same vein, Bill Belichick has now collected 14 division championships as an NFL head coach, which pushes the 64-year-old ahead of Tom Landry and Don Shula for the most all-time. All 14 have been accrued since 2001.