Bill Belichick and the Patriots have always prided themselves on having one of the strongest special teams units in the NFL.
Year after year you’ll hear Belichick stress the importance of “being strong in all three phases of the game – offense, defense, and special teams.”
Tom Brady has been handling the offensive side of things just fine for quite some time, and while the defense has been less consistent over those years, it usually seems to show up when needed most. Certainly it has showed up as of late, as the Broncos became the fifth straight team that New England has held under 20 points this season.
But as good as the Patriots offense looked Sunday night, and as stingy as the defense was, it was that third phase – the special teams – that changed the game from the very start.
After a Patriots three-and-out on the first drive of the game, Broncos punt returner Isaiah McKenzie muffed a punt that Patriots rookie tight end Jacob Hollister recovered at the Broncos’ 24-yard line. Two Brady passes later and Rex Burkhead found the end zone for the Patriots.
Later that quarter, it was another Patriots running back showing up on special teams. Dion Lewis took a kickoff 103 yards down the Broncos sideline to make it 14-3, and suck any momentum out of the Broncos after their field goal drive.
In the second quarter, Burkhead busted through the Broncos defensive line for a blocked punt that set the Patriots up for an eventual field goal and 20-6 lead. It was the third straight game in which the Patriots have blocked a kick. Cassius Marsh blocked a 37-yard field goal attempt against Atlanta and Lawrence Guy blocked a 51-yard field goal attempt against the L.A. Chargers.
It is those kinds of effort plays on special teams that show that players are buying in on the team after a slow 2-2 start to the regular season. Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Brandon Bolden, Nate Ebner, Jonathan Jones, and Patrick Chung are a handful of players who regularly shine on the unit.
And the Patriots as a whole aren’t showing any signs of stopping, instead adding to their list of offensive weapons by signing tight end Martellus Bennett late last week and playing him Sunday night.
With the win – their second straight win in Denver, marking their first winning streak there since 1964-1966 – the Patriots improve to 7-2, including 4-0 on the road. Once again, they control the AFC East in what appears to be yet another layup division title.
Bill Belichick moved into a tie with Tom Landry for third place all-time in wins with 270, and Tom Brady became the winningest quarterback on the road, earning his 86th road win and passing Peyton Manning in the process.
If Week 10 was seen around the league as a big week in determining which teams are the real deal and which ones aren’t, the Patriots’ 41-16 drubbing of the Broncos proves they are about as big of a threat as it gets. But don’t expect them to take their foot off the gas.
“Even though we may have played well [Sunday] night, we're still not satisfied,” Burkhead told reporters on Monday. “We know we're not where we need to be yet. We have a lot of room for improvement and a long ways to go.”