DENVER — The day couldn’t have unfolded much better for the New England Patriots.
Clinching the AFC East division for the eighth straight year, which is an NFL record. Check.
Earning a first-round playoff bye. Check.
If you’re a Patriots fan, what more could you really ask for?
OK, home-field advantage, but that wasn’t an option on this day, when the Patriots played their best game of the season — a turnover-free effort that had the offense, defense and special teams complementing each other in the way that Bill Belichick preaches on a daily basis.
This was a field-position type game and two drives by the Patriots’ offense stood out for their excellence, even though they both ended in punts.
Midway through the second quarter, the Patriots took over at their own 8 with 5:14 remaining and dug the ball out to midfield to kill the clock and take a 10-3 lead into halftime. Then in the third quarter, when they were backed up at their own 5 with 4:25 remaining, they once again dug out to midfield before punting it away and pinning Denver deep in its own territory.
Those are championship type drives in this type of game. They won’t show up on many of the highlight shows, but that’s what this game was all about — playing clean, for good field position, and using their quicker running backs (Dion Lewis, James White) more than the norm on inside running plays.
Meanwhile, the defense — which has improved considerably since the Nov. 13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks — smothered quarterback Trevor Siemian and Co. Cornerback Malcolm Butler appeared to shadow receiver Emmanuel Sanders with success, as fellow cornerback Logan Ryan‘s interception set up the team’s only touchdown.
The Patriots’ most complete game of the season comes at a time when they often are at their best. With a home game against the New York Jets next Saturday, followed by a season finale at Miami on Jan. 1, there’s one more goal left to chase: home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots learned how important that was last year, and they look primed to make sure it doesn’t slip from their grasp.