Emmanuel Sanders couldn't get away from Malcolm Butler. Left side of the formation, right side of the formation, in the slot. No matter where Sanders lined up, Butler wasn't far.
Dealing with a hip injury that limited him in practice last week, Butler was able to keep Sanders close after the snap too. Denver's top receiver -- and one of its only hopes to move the football thanks to a meager running game -- finished with just three catches for 48 yards.
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That the Broncos struggled as much as they did offensively was due in large part to what the Patriots, and Butler in particular, were able to do on Sanders.
For Butler it was a welcome result against a receiver with whom he's quite familar. Last season he allowed Sanders to make five catches for 62 yards in the AFC title game and gave up four grabs for 84 yards in a Week 12 regular-season loss.
"I came here a couple times, and he handed it to me a couple times," Butler told Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran after winning, 16-3. "I'd say he had an upper edge on the battle up until today. But great guy. Love him. Just came out here to compete."
The Patriots threw multiple looks at Sanders and fellow Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (seven catches 91 yards) throughout the game. They played both man and zone. They played press at the line of scrimmage and then bailed deep. And even when the Broncos motioned Sanders away from Butler, they struggled.
That's exactly what happened on the first play of the second quarter when Sanders motioned from quarterback Trevor Siemian's right all the way to the left side of the formation, positioning him across from Logan Ryan. On the third-down-and-three play from the Patriots 14-yard line, Ryan decided to sit at the first-down marker and read Siemian's eyes. Had Sanders broken deep for the end zone, Ryan appeared to have little in the way of help. But he guessed right.
Siemian was late with the pass, and Ryan easily stepped in front for his first pick of the season.
"He threw a similar route to me earlier and, it was third down, I just felt like I wanted to play the sticks a little bit and play flat-footed," Ryan said. "I went with my gut and it paid off."
Ryan had some fun with reporters after the game, reminding them that the Patriots defense was questioned throughout the course of the season and, as he saw it, written off in some corners.
Now, through 15 weeks, the Patriots have allowed the fewest number of points in the league.
"People doubted all year. They said we sucked," Ryan said. "And we heard about [the Broncos] secondary and their defense so we wanted to come out here and prove something."
By going on the road and limiting one of the best receiver duos in the league, they did just that.