By Dennis Georgatos, The Sports Xchange – UPI
DENVER — New England’s special teams gave the Patriots a jump-start and Tom Brady kept it going offensively from there.
Brady passed for three touchdowns and Dion Lewis spearheaded a dazzling special teams performance with a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as the Patriots downed the Denver Broncos 41-16 on Sunday night.
Brady’s first touchdown pass of the night, to running back Rex Burkhead, was set up by Jacob Hollister’s recovery of a muffed punt. Burkhead also blocked a punt to set up one of Stephen Gostkowski‘s two field goals.
“Playing from ahead was really important all night,” Brady said. “It’s hard to play this team when you’re behind and they can just tee off on the (pass) rushes. Special teams played great and we just tried to hold up our end of the bargain.”
Lewis also ran for a touchdown in helping the Patriots (7-2) win on the road for the 12th straight time. The streak ties a club record and is second in NFL history to the San Francisco 49ers‘ record 18-game road winning streak from 1988 to 1990.
The Broncos (3-6) lost their fifth straight since a 3-1 start and struggled offensively to complete drives, settling for Brandon McManus field goals three times in the first half when punching the ball into the end zone would have allowed them to go toe-to-toe with the Patriots.
“Obviously, special teams were a glaring issue but it was all three phases again,” Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said. “We were 1-for-4 in the red zone. We moved the ball better tonight but we didn’t score touchdowns. And defensively, they scored on seven straight possessions.”
It was the seventh time in seven years the Patriots and Broncos have met in the regular season. New England won for the sixth time in that span.
“I think everyone is frustrated right now,” said Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler, who was under center in his first stint with the Broncos in November, 2015 when he led them past New England. “We’ve lost a lot of games in a row. It’s not from a lack of effort, I can say that. But to not see the results on the field, it’s very frustrating.”
Brady completed 25 of 34 passes for 266 yards and led a masterful 16-play, 94-yard drive that ended in a 6-yard touchdown pass to James White early in the fourth quarter, basically quashing any Broncos hopes for a comeback.
Trailing by 18 points, Denver put together a 13-play drive that Osweiler finished with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Thomas, but the Patriots brushed off the score and went right back to work.
Brady drove the Patriots down the field and Lewis plowed through the middle of the Denver defense for an 8-yard touchdown run and a 34-16 lead with 4:36 left in the third quarter.
New England led 27-9 at halftime, bolstered by special teams play and two touchdown passes by Brady, including an 11-yarder to tight end Dwayne Allen with 25 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Broncos were poised to get the ball after stopping the Patriots’ opening possession with a three-and-out, but rookie Isaiah McKenzie muffed the punt and Hollister recovered at the Broncos’ 24-yard line.
It was the first in a slew of special teams breakdowns that were costly for the Broncos.
“That’s not the first punt McKenzie muffed this year,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “And we had a chance on a kickoff return and took advantage of it.”
Two plays after the muffed punt, Burkhead got a step on safety Darian Stewart on a crossing pattern and Brady hit him in stride for a 14-yard touchdown.
Denver answered with the first of three first-half field goals by McManus, but Lewis broke loose for his 103-yard kickoff touchdown. He dodged Shaquil Barrett at the 20, side-stepped a diving McManus near midfield and withstood a desperation shove by Devontae Booker near the sideline, staying in bounds to finish out the scoring run.
The Patriots added another special teams impact play when Burkhead broke through to block a Riley Dixon punt, leading to Gostkowski’s second field goal of the game, a 28-yarder that gave the Patriots a 20-6 lead midway through the second quarter.
NOTES: Patriots WR Matthew Slater went out in the first half with a hamstring injury. … New England has now blocked 12 kicks since 2014 (eight field goals, two extra points and two punts), tying Baltimore and Philadelphia for most in that span. … Broncos LB Todd Davis went out in the first half with an ankle injury. … Allen Barbe started at right tackle for Denver in place of Menelik Watson, who went on injured reserve last week.