DENVER – There is no stat to point to where you can measure a team’s resolve. There’s no advanced metric out there that accounts for “finding a way.” There’s no way to measure “mettle.”
You know it when you see it. Since coming off their bye and losing to the Seahawks, the Patriots have been incrementally improving. Sunday in Denver on a bone-chilling afternoon, the team hit a crescendo.
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Returning to a place they’d lost twice last year, six days after a punishing game with the Ravens, the Patriots rope-a-doped Denver into submission, winning 16-3 because they played a total team game in which offense, defense and special teams meshed neatly and some singular standout plays clinched it.
This was a game the Patriots didn’t seem quite capable of pulling off a month ago.
After the loss to Seattle which followed on the heels the trade of Jamie Collins, the Patriots were at a crossroads. Who were they going to be? How strongly would they hang together while new players assimilated into their roles and all the pieces started to fit? Were they headed down the right road?
Those were the questions being posed on the outside. Within the team – even as they had a hard time processing the Collins move – the identity crisis we imagined taking place seemingly never happened.
Week after week, two players in particular – Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower would say, “We know who we are. We know we have a good defense. We know we have a good team.”
Sunday bore that out.
The final score might indicate a garden-variety snoozefest, but this was actually a fascinating game of field position and complementary football.
There were two drives in particular that demonstrated that. The first came just before halftime. With the Patriots up 10-3, Denver had a 13-play drive that included three third-down conversions. A big stop by Kyle Van Noy for a loss of 6 made Denver punt. They dropped it in at the New England 6 with 5:14 remaining. From there, the Patriots moved off their goal line and – with an 11-play drive – chewed up the rest of the half. They didn’t score. But they held the ball long enough and moved it far enough to keep their lead.
The next field position skirmish came late in the third. With the Patriots up 13-3, the Patriots took over at their 10. A false start put them at their 5. They needed eight plays to move to midfield before punting Denver all the way back to its 7. The Patriots forced a three-and-out. Denver took over at its 12. A 14-yard sack on third-and-1 by Malcom Brown (who left before the half with a stomach issue forced Denver to punt from its 7. The Patriots took over at their 47 and needed just one chunk play – a 34-yarder to Martellus Bennett – to get in field goal range. That made it 16-3. And Denver wasn’t coming back on this day.
“It’s always a field position game,” said Bill Belichick in the Patriots locker room afterward. "No question. That’s the way it always is. The downed punt on the 5-yard line, then we forced the punt, that was a total field position drive. We hit Bennett on the pass got about 25 yards and then we kicked the field goal. But if you can get that kind of field position and make one play and you’re in position to get points in a game like this . . . ”
This game was about the little things. Like a had-to-have-it third-and-6 completion from Brady to Julian Edelman in the third when he encountered traffic at the linebacker level, re-routed, and gathered in a 17-yard bloop from Brady to set up another field goal.
On a day when Brady started 0-for-6 and Trevor Siemian was chewing up chunks of yards in the first half, the Patriots were able to weather it because Denver blinked first. The Logan Ryan interception inside the New England 10 was a blink by the Broncos. And the Patriots made them pay.
“Defense played good, special teams played good and we were able to convert on some third downs and hold onto the ball; those were some of the biggest plays in the game,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “We let them rest a little bit because they were playing so good. We were able to hold onto the ball and hold onto the lead. That wasn’t the goal but we were able to do that.”
I asked Solder if this was a rewarding win.
“For a lot of reasons,” he said. "Every year, you never know how good your team is until you’re put through the fire. To come here to Denver and beat a good team I think that is a good step on our way.”
The steps taken earlier this season were either imperceptible or easily dismissed. The strip sack by Chris Long that ended the Jets game? It was about time someone got to a quarterback. An easy win over San Fran. Everybody beats San Fran. A shellacking of the Rams? Everyone beats the Rams. A handling of the Ravens? Well, they didn’t play like the Ravens. At some point, you have to admit that this 12-2 team is, in reality, very good. And not because of the individual parts necessarily. They are very good because they are – collectively – a little bit more resourceful than the teams they are facing.
“It was a short week, tough game with the Monday night game and coming out here and playing a great organization in the Broncos. It was a great challenge for us. Our players did a great job. They prepared well. They came off, playing a physical game and a tough game against a tough team. I thought we deserved to win. The men played to win in all three phases of the game. We took advantage of our scoring opportunities, turned the ball over on special teams and turned it over on defense. The run ball control gained a little bit of field position on the offense. 16 points was enough. It was a good solid team win. This team did a good job this week.”
There will inevitably be holes punched in this result in an effort to pooh-pooh the accomplishment of 12-2 and another division title and first-round bye. These Patriots just don’t “look like” a team that’s ready to win a Super Bowl. But the truth is, the Super Bowl isn’t being played this week. And this team keeps getting better. Little-by-little. Because of resolve.