DENVER — The New England Patriots, as they arrived at the midpoint of the season, decided it didn’t have to be this hard. They had played in mostly close games and wanted to show they could control a game from start to finish.
By controlling the Denver Broncos from start to finish in a 41-16 victory that featured dominance on special teams — and some ineptitude on Denver’s side — the 7-2 Patriots put themselves in control in both the AFC East and AFC overall.
This was the type of performance they had been looking for all year, with the closest they came previously a Week 2 win over the New Orleans Saints.
In many ways, it was fitting special teams led the way as Bill Belichick recorded the 270th victory over his head-coaching career, which draws him into a third-place tie with Tom Landry on the all-time list. Only Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324) have more wins.
Special teams, of course, are a Belichick trademark as he builds his roster with as many special-teams-only players as any club in the NFL. Recovering a muffed punt early in the first quarter and quickly turning it into a touchdown, Dion Lewis returning a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown, and then Rex Burkhead blocking a punt to lead to a field goal was an impressive trifecta.
Those plays helped the Patriots lead from start to finish in a venue that has been a house of horrors for them more often than not. Tom Brady entered with a 3-7 record at Denver but has now won two in a row.
As for what it means in the big picture, start in the AFC East. The Patriots now hold a two-game lead over the slumping Buffalo Bills (5-4) and play them twice. The Miami Dolphins (4-4) and New York Jets (4-6) don’t currently look like major threats.
Then there’s the AFC overall, with the Patriots and Steelers at 7-2, and a Dec. 17 meeting in Pittsburgh potentially looming large. The Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars are next in line at 6-3.
As the Patriots showed Sunday night, when they play their best, they are as tough as anyone.