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Ten Takeaways From the Patriots Christmas Eve Win in Denver



New England Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore (90) reacts after a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The New England Patriots spent Christmas Eve in Denver taking on the Broncos. They gave themselves an early Christmas present, earning an improbable 26-23 win. Despite the victory being bad for the team’s 2024 NFL Draft position, it was certainly good for team morale. After a rough season, celebrating the flight home following a win has to feel good.

Ten takeaways from the Sunday Night Football battle in the Mile High City.

Playing Quarterback is Hard Without Protection

It took the Patriots exactly one offensive play to prove this accurate. On the first snap of the game Bailey Zappe was sacked, stripped, and lost the fumble. Denver had the ball on New England’s six-yard line just seven seconds after kicking off to begin the game. Bill Belichick stresses that “nothing is more important than ball security” and the team has continued to prove him right. The received in the first half, yet could have down by a touchdown less than ten seconds after the game began.

Both Zappe and the offensive line rebounded nicely after the rough start. Without starters Trent Brown and Cole Strange, the line got themselves together and kept Zappe largely safe the rest of the way. He was sacked only once more. And that early fumble was the only turnover for the Patriots QB.

Patriots Defense is Legit

Despite being put in lousy defensive situations multiple times in the first half, the Patriots defense held their own. The defense held Denver to no points on that first possession. New England’s offense had practically gifted their hosts a lead, but the Broncos were unable to capitalize. They ended up going for it on fourth down instead of taking the points, but failed to punch it into the end zone.

It would have been easy to let the offense’s struggles affect the defense’s performance. But the unit allowed only seven points in the first half. The offensive and special teams each put them in tough positions, but they continued to fight. Another impressive effort by a group that has been a ray of light in a tough season.

Subpar Special Teams (Mostly) Yet Again

New England Patriots special teams play has been bad this season. They’ve committed too many penalties, allowed too many big plays, and cost the team field position and points too often. Unfortunately, there was much of the same from this unit on Sunday night. Excluding the Patriots kicker (more on him later) there were several more miscues from this group in Denver.

The Broncos first touchdown was sparked by a huge punt return. Marvin Mims took Bryce Baringer’s punt at his own 23-yard line and took it all the way back New England’s 25. Five plays later Denver was in the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

Mims also added a 31-yard kickoff return to start the second half. Meanwhile, New England’s punt return, Myles Bryant, muffed a punt. However, the Patriots were lucky to retain possession.

So perhaps it was a great omen when the special teams came up with a huge play. After the Patriots scored to make it 17-7 near the end of the third quarter, they kicked off. Mims was hit by Marte Mapu on the return, and Cody Davis recovered the fumble for a touchdown. In just two plays the game went from a 10-7 Patriots lead to a 23-7 advantage for New England.

Next Man Up for New England’s Linebackers

Among a strong defensive unit this year, the linebackers have been particularly impressive. Matthew Judon was lost for the season after only four games. Josh Uche struggled to stay healthy, and then being productive. Captain Ja’Whaun Bentley has also missed time due to injury. But with others out, or less than 100%, the “next man up” attitude has served this unit well.

Jahlani Tavai has been consistent all season. He had a four tackles, a QB hit, and a forced fumble vs. Denver. Mack Wilson, Sr. has been great for over a month now. Wilson recorded three tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. Bentley tied for the team lead with eight tackles. Uche recorded a sack. The linebackers continued to be a bright spot in an often dark campaign.

Chad Ryland’s Struggles Continue

For more than a quarter century New England Patriots fans have been spoiled by excellent placekickers. Adam Viantieri, Stephen Gostkowski, and Nick Folk were all consistent reliable. The same cannot be said about rookie Ryland in 2023. His missed field goal at the end of the first half made him 14-of 22 (63.6%) on the season. The effort missed by so much, it didn’t even hit the net that gets raised behind the goal posts. Furthermore, it put Denver in position to kick a field goal of their own before half and extend their lead to 10-7 (the Broncos also missed).

Then after Davis’ special teams touchdown for New England at the end of the third, Ryland missed the extra point. Instead of a 17-point lead, it was only 16. This meant that it was a two-score game instead of three. This would come back to haunt the Patriots when the Broncos scored twice in the fourth quarter and were successful on both two-point conversion attempts.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Demario Douglas

Demario Douglas looked healthy, and made several big plays for New England. His 41-yard reception helped set up the Patriots first touchdown. He finished with five receptions for 74 yards. On the bad side of things, he dropped a pass across the middle in the third quarter that had the potential to be a huge gain for New England. He was either anticipating getting hit, or salivating over the open field ahead. Either way, he failed to look the ball into his hands. The incompletion forced New England to punt the ball back the following play. The ugly: Douglas took a hit to the head in the first half. For a player that has missed time with concussions twice this season it was especially scary. Douglas did not miss any time however. It would have been an ugly addition to a largely ugly season for the team, but fortunately injury was avoided this time around. Tip of the cap to a rookie who wanted to get back out there ASAP even with his team having no playoff hopes.

Christian Barmore is an Absolute Stud

If the New England Patriots were having a better season, Christian Barmore would be headed to the Pro Bowl. But whether or not that honor is received, it is certainly deserved despite his team’s record. Barmore has been a bright spot throughout the season for New England. Sunday was his best game yet.

The third year defensive tackle tied for the team lead with eight tackles. He recorded four QB hits of Russell Wilson. Barmore sacked Wilson three times, giving him 8.5 in 2023. If there are players in the Patriots locker room the franchise is looking to lockup longterm, their star defensive tackle would be a great place to start.

A Furious Fourth Quarterback Comeback for Denver

Despite the Patriots back-to-back touchdowns to end the third quarter, the missed extra point by Ryland failed to put the Broncos away. Denver made a furious fourth quarter comeback. The Broncos punted on their first possession, but it would prove to be New England’s last stop for a while. After getting the ball back on a Patriots punt, Denver scored on a Wilson touchdown pass. The successful two-point conversion made it a one-score game.

The Broncos defense forced a Patriots three-and-out to get the ball back. Wilson engineered an 88-yard drive down the field, resulting in another touchdown pass. A second two-point conversion turned the 16-point deficit into a tie game with just 2:53 remaining in regulation.

Their defense then forced another three-and-out from the Patriots offense. With 8:39 remaining in regulation Denver trailed New England by 16 points. With 1:42 to play in the fourth, the Broncos had the ball in a tie game. It was quite a turnaround in under six minutes of actual game time.

No Quit in the New England Patriots

Denver owned 100% of the momentum in front of their home crowd. The game was tied, they had a the ball and a chance to win. They had a 7-7 record and were playing to remain in the playoff hunt. Their opponent was a three-win team barely clinging to life after blowing a 16-point fourth quarter lead. The Broncos winning the game at this point, either in regulation or in overtime, felt inevitable. The Patriots season had practically dictated such an ending.

But once again the Patriots defense came up big when they were needed most. Russell Wilson’s first pass was complete for a three-yard loss. He followed that up with two incompletions. New England forced a three-and-out. Following a punt, they got the had the possession at their own 19-yard line with 58 seconds to play.

New England looked happy to head to overtime, having Ezekiel Elliott run on consecutive plays. But on third down Bailey Zappe aired it out, finding DeVante Parker for a 27-yard gain to the Broncos 47-yard line. Two short completions later, and one incomplete pass, and the Patriots were at the Broncos 38. Instead of heading to overtime, Chad Ryland would have one more chance to redeem himself.

A Christmas Miracle

The New England Patriots were in a decent position. Chad Ryland had a 56-yard field goal attempt awaiting him for the win. Unfortunately, as noted above, Ryland had struggled both throughout the season and during the game. The idea that the rookie would rebound to boot a game-winning 56-yard field goal seemed less likely than having it blocked and losing on a Denver special teams touchdown. Stranger things have certainly happened. The snap and hold were both good, and so was the kick. An early present for Patriots fans cheering on their team regardless of record.

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