This past Sunday, New England turned their perennial nightmare venue into a dream showcase, using all three facets of their game to beat conference rival Denver 16-3. In the process, they won the AFC East for the eighth year in a row and secured a first-round bye. (It says a lot about the expectations of this team that winning the division title has become as foregone a conclusion as Santa’s arrival in “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”)
With Denver’s top passing defense, a rabid, hearty crowd, and temperatures in low double-digits, it proved a tough win. Once the Patriots got the lead for good, the clock moved so slowly that, when time ran out, it felt like a British judge would emerge from the stands to give Russia another chance to score.
Did I say Russia? I meant Denver. Though both places are now freezing cold and just discovering rock music from the early 1990s.
Anyway, while most prognosticators had the Patriots winning the AFC East, few figured they would arrive at Christmas time with such a well-rounded squad that seemed able to take on anybody. The offense that was supposed to do the heavy lifting did just enough, working diligently and carefully against Denver’s D. Seriously, Brady (16 of 32, 188 yards, no TDs) had to pull an Andy Dufresne, crawling through 500 yards of smelly foulness, except in soul-crushing cold. Brady came out clean, though, with no interceptions, and with just enough completions to keep possession for crucial stretches.
He also – as seen in this 18-yard bulls-eye lawn dart to Chris Hogan – found some open windows barely big enough for a dollhouse. Not Brady’s greatest effort, but solid enough against one of the best defenses they’ll face.
Now 12-2, New England hosts the 4-10 Jets on Christmas Eve at 1 p.m. You know, those same Jets who had the best chance to knock off the Patriots this year. Will New York come to play, or have they already checked out for the season? More on that below.
Logan’s Run: Going to start with the defense here, specifically cornerback Logan Ryan, because no single play had a bigger impact than his interception at his own eight-yard line that he ran back to Denver’s 46. This was the first play of the second quarter, and it worked like Lime-A-Way, making what had been a filthy-looking game seem sparkly and new. To that point, Brady had gone zero for six, with the Patriots netting 39 total yards. Meanwhile, Denver QB Trevor Siemian had gone 10 of 13 (77 percent) for 112 yards. From then on, Siemian went 15 of 27 (56 percent), while Brady went 16 of 26 (62 percent), including four for four on the team’s ensuing touchdown drive. Ryan had seven tackles to go along with his interception.
Enter Sanders’ Man: Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders had three catches for 48 yards, all of them coming in the fourth quarter, with two of them happening with New England leading by the final tally. For the first three quarters, Malcolm Butler, Ryan, and the Patriots’ safeties played a key role in keeping Sanders out of Siemian’s reach, forcing the QB to look elsewhere and giving the Patriots’ pass rush time to get home. A fine performance for the team’s number one corner, and it happened with a fair amount of help, as NESN.com’s Doug Kyed pointed out in this well-scouted piece.
JE-epers Creepers: Receiver/Brady-binkie Julian Edelman had six catches for 75 yards, and he deserves praise for helping his QB find some rhythm during the all-important second quarter. Again, because Denver’s vaunted defense had so few busted plays, New England had to cut their way through their opponents like they were bushwhacking with clam knives. A short hook-up with Edelman that netted 17 yards. A beautiful 15-yard sideline pass with Edelman tip-toeing like a Wallenda. Edelman on a crossing route for another 17. Then, after a Brady scramble so smooth it belonged on the brunch menu at the Ritz, a sideline pass to fullback James Develin for 13, the last three of which he spent running over Aqib Talib.
Two plays later, after a Dion Lewis touchdown was called a fumble that Lewis himself recovered, LeGarrette Blount burrowed into the end zone for the game’s lone TD. This is the type of contest that makes it hard to pick an MVP, but no one did more to get the offense on track than Edelman.
One other awesome/typical Edelman moment? His fight for a first down right before the two-minute warning, gaining six yards by power-squeezing through two defenders on third and five. The Patriots didn’t score on that drive, but they held the ball for another 1:21 and ensured they’d go into the half with a 10-3 lead.
Edelman also made the airwaves at 13:33 of the third quarter as he was tackled near the sideline and let loose a premium cable version of “Motherflippers!” No idea why, but hilarious. Hard not to like that guy.
Let’s Talk About Sacks, Baby: The Patriots sacked Siemian four times, and edge defender Trey Flowers had a direct role in three of them. Flowers, whose arms are long enough to make Mr. Fantastic jealous, got through and around the line to take Siemian down twice. Jabaal Sheard sacked Siemian on the very first play of the second half, rolling offensive lineman Donald Stephenson back like he was a loaded IKEA shopping cart (not the easiest thing in the world, but you know, doable). Sheard’s sack helped begin a run of five straight three-and-outs by the Broncos. In the beginning of the fourth quarter, Flowers swam over lineman Max Garcia like Garcia was diving for coins in a motel pool, which hurried Siemian into a spin move where he was gobbled up by defensive tackle Malcolm Brown. This forced Denver to punt from their own seven-yard line. New England started their next drive on their own 47 and scored their final field goal of the day.
Sacks aren’t everything, but on Sunday they were indicative of – and a reward for – consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Draw Lines In The Dirt: Kudos to New England’s offensive and defensive lines for winning enough battles to push past the home team. For the offense, right tackle Marcus Cannon exorcised more demons than that wonderful character actor from the Poltergeist movies (Zelda Rubinstein, in case you were wondering). Cannon held living QB anxiety attack Von Miller to one hurry and zero sacks, a statistical opposite of Cannon’s previous visit to Denver where the tackle seemed lost and out of his depth. (Great rundown by ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss of Cannon casting aside last year’s burden here.) While rookie left guard Joe Thuney had some issues (two holding penalties, two sacks allowed), the rest of the O-line seemed to hold up well.
Rushing stats tell a tale this week. While a 3.5-yard average won’t wow the scouts, gaining 136 yards on 39 carries provides important context. New England’s primary ball carrier, Lewis, ran 18 times for 95 yards (5.3 avg.). This 5-foot-8 ice pick chip-chip-chipping away at the Mile-High glacier aided the overall offense in gaining 20 first downs and 73 plays total (compared to 15 and 61 for the home team). Lots of names to mention here, but Brown (four tackles) and Alan Branch (three tackles) get shout-outs for their work in limiting the Broncos’ rushing attack (17 for 58 yards, 3.4 avg.).
I’m Special, So Special: Let’s give the Patriots’ special teams some of our attention, shall we? Stephen Gostkowski made every kick he tried, nailing three field goals (including a 40- and 45-yarder). Punter Ryan Allen averaged 41 yards per boot, keeping New England on the positive side of field position with three of seven planted inside the 20-yard line. Most importantly, the visitors’ special teams units avoided big mistakes and took advantage of Denver’s, pouncing on a Jordan Norwood muffed punt to help post an early 3-0 lead when the Patriots’ offense was gaining only slightly more ground than the Jakobshavn glacier.
Few highlight reel plays to speak of, with no big returns or blocked kicks. Still, it was a well-executed, consistent day from the third team that helped make the difference.
I Think We’re Alone Now: Last column, I talked about how much I’d enjoyed the previous few weeks’ broadcasts, from ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” to Fox. Back to CBS this past Sunday, and – while I had no big complaints about Phil Simms and Jim Nantz – I had a few issues with the lack of replays from the Tiffany network. For a corporation with an eye for a logo, I found it surprising how often they seemed to overlook important (and often entertaining) plays. In fact, I compiled a list:
• With nine minutes left in the first quarter, Denver tight end Virgil Green suffered an injury. We see the play, we see him down on the ground, we see trainers run to his aid. No replay, so no analysis on what was later revealed to be a concussion. (For now, the replay is available online, and it looks as though linebacker Elandon Roberts hits Green on the helmet while assisting on the tackle.)
• On the same play, Simms and Nantz noted that the pass might have been tipped by Flowers. Well, was it, guys? WAS IT?
• At 11:18 of the first, Edelman went back to receive the punt. After Denver downed the ball, Edelman had a discussion with the referee and, I’m pretty sure, gave him a fist bump. Would have been fun to see again.
• Siemian missed tight end Jeff Heuerman in the right flat because of an onrushing Ryan, though I had to run back my DVR to make sure. Instead of a replay, we were treated to a useless graphic of the different teams Justin Forsett has played for this season. (It’s three. It’s the answer to the bar trivia question no one will ever ask.)
• At 10:19 of the second quarter, Branch absolutely smushed Forsett for a one-yard loss, setting up a third and three that Denver failed to convert. Did the O-line miss the block? Did Branch overpower his guy? Hard to tell without any replay.
• At 5:56 of the second quarter, sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson said that Brown had a stomach injury (praise to Wolfson for actually using the word “injury,” avoiding the silly-yet-prevalent lingo, “He’s out with a stomach”). Later, she reported that Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe was out with a back injury. When did these happen? Can’t we see the last plays these guys participated in? I’m not a fan of watching players get hurt, but sometimes a replay can tell us a story and fill in some game information. Feel like CBS missed the ball, there.
• Brady’s pass to Edelman right after the two-minute warning in the first half went incomplete, but it was such a bang-bang play, we didn’t get to see whether the pass was off-target (maybe behind him) or if Edelman couldn’t corral a catchable ball. Every down felt big in this game; it would have been nice to review a few more of them.
• With just under six minutes left, Talib and Hogan received offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. What happened? How was this not on-camera? Who wouldn’t love to see Talib, that entertaining, gangly goofball, tussle a little? Another missed opportunity.
With that, some praise for their multiple replays on Devin McCourty’s hit on Demaryius Thomas with 6:04 left that jarred the ball out of Thomas’ hands on fourth down. A tough, well-timed play by McCourty that deserved – and got – viewings from different angles.
Double Your Pleasure: One critical note of Simms’ commentating. With 1:20 left in the second quarter, he gave Talib credit for sticking with Lewis on a “double move.” The main issue is that, as the replay showed, Lewis made a single move to sprint past Talib, who made contact and ended up behind Lewis by a yard. Brady overthrew the running back.
Also, a quick note on Nantz calling Blount’s touchdown on the back end of Ryan’s interception a “14-point swing.” We can’t call it that because we don’t know if Denver would have scored a TD. A 10-point swing? Sure.
Denigrate The Jets: As disappointing as last season was for the Jets – missing the playoffs due to a loss to rival Buffalo in Week 17 – this year’s fall must feel like a butt-naked slide down a sandpaper ski jump into a tire fire. A quick look at their schedule shows that they’ve competed well at times (24-16 win over the Ravens in October, a taut 22-17 loss to NE in November), but it looks as though they’ve started to look forward to some free time, as they sandwiched an overtime win at San Francisco with two disheartening losses (41-10 Colts, 34-13 Dolphins).
Can the Jets be competitive? Sure. They actually led Miami 7-6 with two minutes left in the first half, until Kenny Stills broke free for a long TD pass. A blocked punt return for a touchdown in the third sealed it for the Dolphins, who had three sacks and three interceptions on the day (the Jets had one of each). But will the Jets be competitive? If the Patriots can get an early lead and make a few stops on defense, it’s hard to figure New York will press the issue.
New York’s 4-10, man. No one predicted that.
Not The Bassist From The Muppets: Former Cardinal receiver Michael Floyd is now a Patriot, bringing some mixed feelings with him in terms of his DUI arrest and alleged lack of remorse. He traveled with the team to Denver, but will he make the game-day roster on Saturday? Probably. In front of a friendly Foxboro crowd, playing a Jets defense ranked 17th in passing yardage, 30th in passing TDs allowed, and 31st in sacks, might provide a good environment to try out the 6-2, 220-pound wideout.
On a personal note, I just hope he can get some help. Playing football must be great, but I’ll go with the words that Gayle Sayers once said, “As you practice to play, practice not to play.” Like all NFL players, Floyd’s only going to get league paychecks for so long. Simply shrugging off his DUI by saying, “Dude can afford Uber,” isn’t going to solve his problems, nor will finding another team willing to pay his salary. Whether he finds a home in Foxboro or no, I really hope he can find some peace.
On to lighter subjects, like the commercials.
Sriracha-Cha-Cha-Cha: When I was in my 20s, I’d go to a restaurant in my hometown, order the side dish of red beans and rice for five bucks, slather it in Sriracha, wash it all down with a beer, and call it a night. I liked that sauce so much I would’ve considered eating Sriracha-covered road kill (but only if it were really, really well-cooked. I mean, let’s be reasonable, here).
I still love the stuff, even though my stomach gives out plentiful warnings that I can not consume it like I could 20 years ago. Enter Wendy’s Spicy Sriracha Chicken Sandwich. The chicken, the sauce, the cheese, and – for the love of God – even the bun are “infused” with Sriracha.
The Wendy’s people have to know this is too much, right? At any point, I have to wonder if a Wendy’s recipe technician, all suited up in a lab coat in the super-secret Wendy’s testing center, tried to tone this thing down a little. Like, we’ll do the chicken and the cheese, but we should hold off on the sauce and the bun. The bun, for Christ’s sake!
My stomach is doing flips as I merely write about this. So, if you try this hot-trocity, please let me know what you think, i.e., how much this filled your being with regret.
Listen, I understand the “Daddy’s a Dummy” theme of most commercials, as I’ve often typecast myself in that role, but this guy makes gift-wrapping seem like nuclear fusion. It’s fine if he’s inexperienced and/or bad at it, but he doesn’t have to look at tubes of paper like they’re the stones from The Fifth Element. Overall, this ad says, “Check out Verizon and be like this idiot!”
Wanna Get Away? I was totally on board (so to speak) with Southwest Airlines’ “Any Way You Want It” commercial, and I figured they had a solid campaign to build on. Since then, though, they’ve gone with more modern fare, like T.I.’s “Whatever” and the newest, “Pumped” by Jax Jones. (You can view a rundown of these ads here.) “Whatever” works, with the woman at the counter replying, “You can go wherever you like,” to every request, but I feel like these ads would have more effectiveness with a louder, more absurd 1980s vibe. Instead of replying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” from “Pumped,” would “Oh Yeah” work better? Should they promote red-eye flights with “All Night Long?”
You know what? I’m old. Let’s just move along.
Go Back Ta Stahbucks: There’s Oscar talk that Casey Affleck will be nominated for his work in Manchester By The Sea. The 2017 Emmys are a long way away, but he should also be nominated for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series after his work in this “Saturday Night Live” Dunkin’ Donuts ad parody. I feel like I get a more complete examination of a Boston character in this one-minute, 38-second gem than I do in most two-hour Hollywood movies.
But, seriously, this holiday season, keep an eye out for Dunkin’ Vanilla Nut Taps.
I’m On My Way, I’m Making It: I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at the Movantik ad. It stars a construction foreman who takes time out from his busy schedule to break the fourth wall and tell us some, ah, personal stuff:
“My doctor prescribed opioids, which helped with the chronic pain, but backed me up. Big time. I tried prunes. Laxatives. I’m still constipated.”
Hmmm … Sorry to hear that, sir. Have you tried Wendy’s new chicken sandwich?
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, folks. Here’s hoping Santa puts some home-field advantage in New England’s stocking.
Chris Warner is contemplating whether to capture the opening of the Barbie Dream House on video or to simply experience it in the now. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @cwarn89.