DENVER — The Patriots are rolling, and neither opponents nor ghosts have offered resistance of late.
They rocked the Broncos, 41-16, last night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, turning a one-time House of Horrors into a glorified practice grounds against a former conference rival. The Pats have now won back-to-back games in Denver for the first time since 1965-66.
Tom Brady was 25-of-34 for 266 yards and three touchdowns, and an offensive line with backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle kept the bloodthirsty Broncos pass rushers off their 40-year-old quarterback’s back. He was sacked just a single time, and Von Miller was a non-factor.
“We played really good complementary football,” Brady said. “It was a great team win, obviously a very tough place for us to play.”
Brady had plenty of help from Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White, which was particularly meaningful with Mike Gillislee on the sideline in street clothes as a healthy scratch. Lewis, who has led the Pats in rushing yards in five consecutive games, also broke open the contest in the first quarter with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and he became the first player since the 1970 merger to record a second game with a kickoff return and a rushing touchdowns.
Lewis’ big play was the highlight of another sterling effort on special teams. They also recovered a muffed punt return and had a blocked punt to accrue an extra six points. This, of course, occurred a game after the Pats notched their second blocked field goal of the season and also recorded a safety in punt coverage.
“We want to go out there and know our special teams are always going to dominate because we put the work in,” Duron Harmon said. “Each and every week, we want special teams to be a win for us.”
All the while, the Pats (7-2) kept up with Pittsburgh for the best record in the AFC, and they’ve outscored opponents, 128-67, during a five-game winning streak. And Bill Belichick tied Tom Landry for third on the all-time list with 270 career coaching victories.
The special teams group got it in gear early as Isaiah McKenzie dropped a punt in front of an enclosing Jonathan Jones, and Jacob Hollister recovered at the Denver 24. Brady followed with back-to-back completions to Burkhead, who beat Darian Stewart on a crossing pattern for a 14-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead.
Defensively, the Pats opted to use Stephon Gilmore to shadow Demaryius Thomas in the cornerback’s return from a three-game, concussion-related absence. Meanwhile, Malcolm Butler took Emmanuel Sanders, who caught a 31-yard pass on Denver’s opening drive before the Broncos settled for Brandon McManus’ 39-yard field goal and a 7-3 deficit.
“It helped me, especially getting an incompletion and getting your hand on the ball,” Gilmore said about his third-down pass breakup on Broncos’ first drive. “It gets you going a little bit. It was fun.”
Lewis then made it 14-3 with the kickoff return, as he followed blocks by James Develin and Dwayne Allen and maintained his balance up the left sideline to extend the Pats’ advantage.
The Broncos answered another TD with another field goal to make it 14-6.
Brady reintroduced himself to Martellus Bennett (three catches, 38 yards) on the ensuing series, as the pair hooked up for a 27-yarder on the first play of the drive. Brady stayed hot on the march, completing five consecutive passes for 55 yards, but the Pats stalled on the doorstep and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 25-yard field goal to push the lead to 17-6.
After Gilmore was in coverage for another third-down incompletion, the Pats piled on with their third instrumental play in special teams. Burkhead blocked Riley Dixon’s punt, and the Pats took over at the Denver 30. Gostkowski’s 28-yard field goal extended the margin to 20-6.
Sanders, who was on the receiving end of 114 of Brock Osweiler’s 128 first-half passing yards, again paced the Broncos offense as McManus kicked a 36-yarder to make it 20-9.
The Pats dropped the hammer with another scoring drive in the two-minute drill. Brady was 3-of-4 for 40 yards, and he delivered a perfect throw to Allen for an 11-yard touchdown. It was Allen’s first catch of the season on his eighth target, and staked the Pats to a 27-9 halftime lead.
The Pats have scored in the final minute of the first half in seven of their nine games, including six in a row.
The Broncos opened the third with a 13-play, 75-yard drive as Thomas closed it down with a slant for a 7-yard TD and a 27-16 deficit.
Brady was undeterred. He opened the next drive with a 26-yarder to Gronkowski and a 25-yarder to Brandin Cooks, and Lewis ended it with an 8-yard touchdown for a 34-16 lead.
And if the Broncos had any life left after that, Brady stifled it with a 16-play, 94-yard march capped by 6-yard TD to White that made it a laugher.
“We’re not complacent,” Harmon said. “We know we’ve got a long ways to go. Even though we won some games, we can play better.”