Snap Judgments: LeGarrette Blount makes history, Patriots capture 8th straight AFC East, first-round bye

Mike Petraglia
December 18, 2016 - 2:21 pm

[caption id="attachment_114994" align="alignright" width="400"]Dec 18, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) rushes for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports LeGarrette Blount eyes the Denver defense on a first-half run Sunday. (Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports)[/caption] DENVER --  There was no muffed punt. There was no missed extra point. There was no last-second heartbreak this time. The Patriots went into their house of horrors Sunday afternoon and came away with only the satisfaction of an eighth straight AFC East title and a first-round bye thanks to a 16-3 win over the Broncos at Sports Authority Field. The eighth straight division title also set a new NFL record and secured a spot in the postseason for an eighth straight season. That marks the 18th time since Robert Kraft became owner in 1994, the most of any NFL team in that period. It was just the third time in 10 tries that Brady walked out of Denver a winner and it was anything but pretty before the 365th straight sellout crowd in Denver. Brady finished 16-of-32 for 188 yards. Julian Edelman finished with six catches 12 targets for 75 yards. The game-time temperature was officially 18 degrees and the bitter cold forced more than two thousand no-shows. The Patriots (12-2) got the first big break of the game, and ironically it was on a muffed punt. Jordan Norwood was back to field a punt after the Patriots went 3-and-out to start the game. Norwood fumbled at his own 31. After two Brady incompletions intended for James White, Dion Lewis gained seven yards on a third-down rush. The conservative approach led to a 45-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and a 3-0 Patriots lead. Brady and the offense again stalled after the defense forced a punt. The Broncos got their offense going when they drove 47 yards in eight plays, capped by a Brandon McManus 33-yard field goal to tie the game. The key play on the drive was blanket coverage by Kyle Van Noy on Devontae Booker's wheel route on third down prior to the field goal. Van Noy was all alone in coverage on Booker, who was free to the end zone before the pass breakup. Brady started the game 0-for-6 in the passing game. With runs of 14 and eight yards, the Patriots and Lewis finally got the offense in gear on their fourth possession of the first quarter. But after another incompletion on a pass intended for White, the Patriots were forced to punt. Brady finished the 0-for-6, his first quarter of play without a completed pass since 2009. But with the Broncos driving for a go-ahead touchdown, the game turned when Logan Ryan stepped in front of Emmanuel Sanders and returned an interception 46 yards to the Denver 46. On the first play after the pick, Brady was strip-sacked. Joe Thuney, who was beat on the sack, recovered the ball. On the next play, Brady finally completed a pass, a 17-yarder to Julian Edelman. Brady would complete three passes on the drive to Edelman for 44 yards before LeGarrette Blount barreled in for a one-yard touchdown run and a 10-3 Patriots lead early in the second quarter. It was Blount's 15th rushing touchdown of the season, a new Patriots single-season mark, breaking the previous mark held by Curtis Martin in 1995 and '96. The Patriots caught a huge break on the play prior to the touchdown when Lewis reached out for the goal line on his run and fumbled the ball. He was able to retrieve it at the bottom of the pile when the Broncos couldn't hop on it. The Patriots took a 10-3 halftime lead despite Brady completing just 8-of-16 passes for 73 yards. The Patriots got the ball back just before the half but couldn't move it into scoring position. The biggest moment on the drive occurred when Martellus Bennett yelled at fellow tight end Matt Lengel on 2nd-and-8 at the New England 21 with 2:44 left in the first half. Lengel was subbed out after Brady was forced to call a timeout. Trevor Siemian completed 15-of-21 passes for 147 yards but had the one interception that changed the complexion of the half.

Closing Time noteThe Patriots set a new NFL record with their eighth straight division title.

[For a full box score and stats, click here.]

The Patriots caught another break when it was announced at the start of the second half that defensive tackle Derek Wolfe would not return due to a neck injury. Brady led an 11-play, 61-yard drive that ended with Gostkowski connecting on a 40-yard field goal to extend the lead to 13-3 with 5:28 left.  The key play was once again a Brady-to-Edelman connection. With Brady under pressure at the Denver 45, he found Julian Edelman over the middle for 17 yards and a first down. The Patriots defense was dominant, holding the Broncos without a first down on six consecutive possessions from the second quarter through midway through the fourth. The Patriots added more insurance when Gostkowski connected on his third field goal of the day from 21 yards with 8:16 left. The key play on that drive was a Brady-to-Bennett completion of 34 yards to the Denver 19. The Patriots drove to the Denver 3 but had to settle for the field goal. After allowing back-to-back big gains for first downs, the Patriots pass defense came up big when Devin McCourty knocked the ball free from Demaryius Thomas on the right sideline at the Patriots 12. The incompletion on 4th-and-2 turned the ball back over to the Patriots with just under six minutes left. The Broncos fell to 8-6, putting the defending Super Bowl champs on the outside looking in at the AFC playoff picture with two weeks to go. The Patriots' reward for the division-clinching win is a short week to prepare for the hapless Jets on Christmas Eve at Gillette Stadium. If the Patriots can beat the Jets on Christmas Eve, they clinch the No. 1 seed before heading to Miami to take on the Dolphins on New Year's Day.