Patriots top Broncos, clinch AFC East, first-round bye

The New England Patriots (12-2) clinched their eighth consecutive AFC East title and earned their seventh straight first-round bye in the postseason, pounding out a 16-3 victory over the rival Denver Broncos (8-6) in Week 15. Here's what we learned:

  1. This time around, Tom Brady had the benefit of a bona fide ground attack, a healthy offensive line and a game-plan designed to remove the Broncos' best player -- Defensive Player of the Year candidateVon Miller -- from the equation. Overcoming his least-effective opening frame in 13 years, Brady came alive in the second quarter, leading a seven-play, 46-yard touchdown drive for a 10-point swing after Trevor Siemian was intercepted in the red zone. Exploiting a Broncos ground defense that has surrendered 120 or more yards in nine of 14 games, Josh McDaniels called more runs than Brady pass attempts for the first time this season. When Brady did drop back in the pocket, he got rid of the ball quickly, targeting Julian Edelman or James White on 65 percent of his 31 throws. Following the Chiefs' loss on Sunday, the Patriots now hold a one-game lead for the No. 1 seed with matchups remaining versus the 4-10 Jets and 9-5 Dolphins.
  1. Denver's defense turned in the stingiest performance versus Brady all season, but couldn't compensate for a one-dimensional offense that continues to be held back by the offensive line and backfield. Siemian's attack managed just nine yards on its first 15 plays of the second half, short-circuiting any chance of a comeback in a tight game played close to the vest. As promising as Siemian has been in his first year at the helm of Gary Kubiak's offense, Broncos quarterbacks have led touchdown drives on just two of 37 possessions over the past three weeks.
  1. The Patriots' defense has not been tested by a great quarterback since the Week 10 loss to Russell Wilson's Seahawks, but they have to be encouraged by the improved play of late. Led by burgeoning pass rusher Trey Flowers, the front seven harassed Siemian for four sacks and contributed six tackles for loss. Safety Devin McCourty laid a big hit on Demaryius Thomas, separating the receiver from the ball on a key fourth down late in the game. Emerging as one of the NFL's finest all-around cornerbacks, Malcolm Butlerput the clamps onEmmanuel Sanders, shutting out Denver's No. 1 receiver for three quarters.
  1. On the same afternoon in which he became just the sixth undrafted player to reach the 5,000-yard rushing mark for his career, LeGarrette Blount set a new single-season franchise record with 15 rushing touchdowns. He deserves Pro Bowl recognition for his first 1,000-yard season since his rookie year of 2010 -- the longest span between 1,000-yard campaigns in history.
  1. The Patriots have to be feeling more confident in Stephen Gostkowski, who has been rock-solid over the past month after battling through the worst stretch of his brilliant career early this season. An experienced cold-weather kicker, Gostkowski drilled three field goals in Denver's 8-degree windchill on Sunday.
  1. More of a complementary player while rounding into form following offseason foot surgery, Edelman was targeted on 26 percent of Brady's attempts through Rob Gronkowski's lung injury in Week 10. Since losing the All Pro tight end, Brady has run his aerial attack through Edelman, increasing his target rate to 40 percent.
  1. One of these two AFC powerhouses has captured the conference's No. 1 seed in each of the last six years. While the Patriots remain the favorites to continue that streak this season, the Broncos are now tied with the Ravens and Titans for the seventh spot in the playoff picture, a game behind the 9-5 Dolphins. Denver has a tough row to hoe with a broken offense and two grueling matchups at Kansas City and versus Oakland to close out the regular season.
  1. The Patriots' eighth straight division title is an NFL record, breaking a tie with the 1973-79 Los Angeles Rams, per NFL Research. New England's seven consecutive first-round playoff byes are three more than the 1990s 49ers and Cowboys accomplished for second place on the list. The hegemony of Brady and Bill Belichick is incredible in a league that legislates against sustained success. The worse a team is one year, the easier its road to the playoffs the next. The special teams in search of a coveted dynasty, on the other hand, must continually overcome the NFL's systematic drag toward intentional parity.
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