New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) drops back for a pass in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on October 29, 2017. File photo by Matthew Healey/UPI | License Photo
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Embarking on a two-game trip and a stretch of five games away from home in six weeks, the New England Patriots (7-2) exited the bye week in about as impressive a fashion as possible with Sunday night's 41-16 win over the Broncos (3-6) in Denver.
In a place that so often that has been a struggle over the years -- New England had a 3-7 mark in trips to Mile High dating to 2001 -- this time around it was a dominant win with contributions in all three phases of the game, with a few gifts along the way from the bumbling Broncos.
Tom Brady passed for three touchdowns and no interceptions, in large part because his offensive line gave him his best protection of the season against Von Miller and Co.
The kicking game chipped in big, including recovering a muffed punt to set up a short-field opening score, a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Dion Lewis and a blocked punt to set up a field goal. It left Broncos first-year head coach Vance Joseph saying he's never seen a worse special teams performance than the one his team fielded.
Defensively, New England held its opponent to 17 points or fewer for the fifth straight game, which not coincidentally is a five-game winning streak for the AFC East leaders.
"(Sunday night) was a really good night for us. Hopefully we can build on this and gain some confidence in all three phases," Brady said afterward. "I thought playing from ahead was really important all night. We played really good, complementary football. We just tried to hold up our end of the bargain."
In a league and a conference where so many teams struggle to win and find consistency on a weekly basis, head coach Bill Belichick's defending champions appear to be rounding into midseason form. But don't expect any victory laps in New England or acknowledgment that a good night in a usually tough environment in Denver was any sort of statement game.
"I think we're never satisfied, though," running back Rex Burkhead said a day after he recorded the blocked punt and opening score in the big win with a 14-yard touchdown catch.
"Even though we may have played well last night, we're still not satisfied. We know we're not where we need to be yet. We have a lot of room for improvement and a long ways to go. It's still early in the season, so we've got to improve upon things if we really want to be where we want to be."
Burkhead, a first-year Patriots contributor, clearly has learned the way things work in New England from guys like safety Duron Harmon, one of the team's captains.
"The only thing we're worried about each and every week is being a better football team than we were the week before and I think progressively over the season we have been able to see that especially defensively. We didn't start out the way we wanted to, but we've actually been making a lot of strides," Harmon said.
"It's not about being the best in the NFL right now. It's really about, like I said, just getting better, being better than you were the week before, trying to make constant improvement and being able to learn from the tape which allows you to be better next week. So we're going to watch the tape this week, watch it today, learn from it and then try and get better and improve on areas that we weren't as good at or where we want to be at."
Even if the Patriots are at a pretty impressive place right now, building a foundation for yet another potential Super Bowl run.
Tight end Martellus Bennett made his 2017 Patriots debut in Denver with reserve action, including three catches for 38 yards. New England claimed Bennett off waivers from the Packers on Nov. 9, after Green Bay released him midway through his first season with the team with the designation of failure to disclose an injury amid some controversy surrounding a shoulder problem. Though Bennett, who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots a year ago, had not been playing or practicing in his final weeks with the Packers, he got to work immediately in New England.
"It wasn't where I was, it was just about the injury," Bennett said after the Patriots beat Denver, 41-16. "It was like one of those things, I talked to six or seven doctors about it and it could go either way. It was like one of those things I felt I should get fixed. And then after trying to get it fixed and getting waived, you just get that vengeance in your heart. It's just like, 'All right, that's how you're going to do it, then (expletive) it. Let's go ball.'"
Bennett claims he instructed his agent to tell teams not to claim him because he was planning on getting surgery, but he explained that his thinking changed when the Patriots claimed him and head coach Bill Belichick called.
"It was like, 'Let me just call you back in a few minutes. Give me a chance to think about it and regroup.' Because I don't even know if I went through the seven stages of grief yet," Bennett explained. "I'm probably on step 3. I think the group of guys on this team couldn't be a better place for me to be, with what I'm going through right now, this situation, it couldn't be a better place for me, all the familiar faces and friends and things like that. It's been good to have those guys around."
Following New England's Sunday night win in Denver, the Patriots remained in Colorado where they'll work out all week leading up to next Sunday afternoon's meeting with the Raiders in Mexico City. The Patriots will set up base in Colorado Springs, practicing at the Air Force Academy.
The decision to remain out west this week paid immediate dividends for those involved, with a short bus ride to a hotel rather than a cross-country flight after the 41-16 win at Mile High.
"We kind of just sat back and relaxed. It was a good time to take a deep breath, have a little time to enjoy with your teammates and just enjoy the night," safety Duron Harmon said of settling into the hotel home-away-from-home for the week ahead.
"Definitely different not flying back after the game, just getting to the hotel right after the game last night," running back Rex Burkhead said. "It was beneficial for sure - get a lot more rest and just time to unwind and recover from the game."
Coach Bill Belichick tied Tom Landry (270) for third-most wins in NFL history with the 41-16 victory over the Broncos on Sunday night. As he so often does in such situations, the Patriots' head coach deflected the attention from the milestone toward his players, past and present, who helped him get to this point.
"Look, it's flattering, but honestly, I don't think that's the story tonight," Belichick said in Denver. "The story is what our team did, the way our team performed. To win games in this league, you need great players. I've been fortunate. I've had a lot of great players, a lot of great assistant coaches and great staffs. That's really what it's about. Players are the ones that deserve the credit. They're the ones that go out and make the plays, and they did it tonight."
NOTES: DT Malcom Brown (ankle) was listed as out prior to the trip to Denver and missed his second straight game to the injury, just the second game missed in the former first-round pick's two-plus year career. ... WR Chris Hogan (shoulder) was listed as out prior to the trip to Denver, missing his first game of the year coming out of the bye to the injury suffered against the Chargers that left him in a sling last week. ... RT Marcus Cannon (ankle) was listed as out prior to the trip to Denver after missing practice all last week with the issue that's actually a reinjury. Cannon has been dealing with an ankle issue since the first month of the season and left the pre-bye win over the Chargers in the second quarter and did not return. L'Adrian Waddle made his second start of the season in Cannon's place at right tackle and was impressive. ... RB Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch in Denver, missing his first game of the season after notching double-digit rushing attempts in seven of the first eight contests of his New England career. For at least one night, Gillislee was the odd man out in a crowded and versatile Patriots backfield. ... CB Eric Rowe (groin) missed his fifth straight game despite returning to the practice field on a limited basis last week and being listed as questionable for a return to action against the Broncos. ... DE Cassius Marsh (shoulder) missed his first game of the season despite practicing on a limited basis last week and being listed as questionable for the Broncos game. Prior to the injury, Marsh had seen his role grow to more than 50-percent playing time on the New England defense. ... DE Geneo Grissom re-signed to the New England practice squad Nov. 11, a day after being released from the active roster when the team claimed TE Martellus Bennett off waivers from the Packers. ... DT Ricky Jean Francois made his Patriots debut in reserve action in Denver just five days after signing with the team on Nov. 7. ... TE Martellus Bennett made his season debut for the Patriots in Denver after joining the team off waivers from the Packers on Nov. 9.
REPORT CARD VS. BRONCOS
--PASSING OFFENSE: A - With arguably his best pass protection of the season, Tom Brady had one of his best career games in Denver completing 25 of 34 throws for 266 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 125.4 passer rating. Sacked just once, Brady spread the ball to nine targets, with eight catching multiple balls, led by Brandin Cooks' six catches for 74 yards. Rex Burkhead, James White and Dwayne Allen all had short scores.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C - With Dion Lewis once again taking the lead-back role, New England ran it enough (29 times for 99 yards) to balance out the offense in Denver. It was a solid effort against a top-five run defense, even if no Patriot averaged better than 4 yards a carry or had a run longer than 9 yards. Lewis led the way with a game-high 14 carries for 55 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown.
--PASS DEFENSE: C - Despite Denver's ineptitude on offense coming in, Brock Osweiler and Co. still made some plays, especially before the game got out of hand. The Broncos passer completed 18 of 33 throws overall for 221 yards with one TD and one fourth-quarter interception for a 72.9 rating. Denver hit four pass plays of 23 yards or longer, including a 38-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders on the first third down of the night. Sanders ran Malcolm Butler all over the field to a game-high 137 yards on six catches, while Demaryius Thomas had Denver's only touchdown catch.
--RUSH DEFENSE: C - Playing without Malcom Brown (ankle), the New England front had its issues at times with the Broncos ground game that got going a bit in the second quarter. C.J. Anderson had eight rushes for 48 yards with a long of 21 yards in the first half, adding just two carries for 6 yards as the score got lopsided in the second half. Overall, Denver had 28 rushes for 118 yards (4.2 average), with both Anderson (5.4) and Jamaal Charles (8 for 38 and 4.8) hitting on chunk runs. Denver's line got good push more often than not.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: A - New England's kicking game swung the game thanks to Broncos mistakes. Jacob Hollister recovered a muffed Isaiah McKenzie punt return after an opening three-and-out to set up a short score. Dion Lewis broke down the left side for a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown. Rex Burkhead notched a blocked punt to set up a short field-goal drive. It was a marquee night for the special teams units, including drawing a 12-man penalty on a punt to extend another drive.
--COACHING: B - Bill Belichick's team had been 3-7 in Denver dating back to 2001 prior to Sunday night's beat-down of the Broncos. Coming out of the bye, New England's short passing game and balanced attack made for a nice mix offensively behind an impressive offensive line performance. Defensively, the lack of a couple starters on the front seven was evident, but not enough to derail the win in which the back end used a lot of man looks. Clearly Joe Judge's special teams troops were more than ready to go and dominated the game. Coming out of the bye, the Patriots had solid game plans, team-wide confidence and a calm approach in a tough environment.