DENVER (AP) — Tom Brady brought a power run game and a sturdier offensive line with him to the Mile High City this time.
They helped him walk away a winner for just the third time in 10 trips to Denver.
Brady overcame both a slow start and another dazzling performance by Denver's defense in New England's grinding 16-3 win Sunday that secured a first-round bye in the playoffs. It also dealt a crushing blow to the Broncos' playoff hopes.
"It was a great feeling," Brady said.
He was equally pleased with the rare win in Denver as he was with his avoidance of another beating like the one he suffered in the AFC championship last January, when the Broncos hit him a career-high 23 times .
This time, they only got to him seven times — the same amount Von Miller had in the conference championship. Miller didn't get his hands on Brady at all Sunday.
"They played great," Brady said of his O-line that allowed only two sacks and five QB hits . "We ran the ball well. It was a great feeling. They did a great job."
Brady missed his first six passes for just the second time his career — the first was way back on Oct. 12, 2003, against the Giants — but he came back to lead the Patriots (12-2) to a record eighth consecutive division title.
This time, it was the Broncos' hopes of defending their Super Bowl title that took a beating.
The Broncos (8-6) lost for the third time in four games and were supplanted by the Dolphins for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC race with two weeks remaining.
Brady completed just half of his 32 passes for 188 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 68.2. That was actually worse that Broncos' QB Trevor Siemian, who was 25 for 40 for 282 yards with an interception for a rating of 73.1.
Those numbers alone belied the Patriots' all-around dominance of their nemesis.
Behind Dion Lewis' 95-yard effort, New England outrushed Denver 136 yards to 58.
Brady's first completion was a 17-yarder to Julian Edelman a minute into the second quarter, igniting a drive that ended with LeGarrette Blount powering his way in from the 1 . That was his 15th rushing touchdown, which set a single-season franchise record and broke a 3-3 tie.
The Patriots put the ball on the ground twice on that drive. Brady was sack-stripped on the first snap with left guard Joe Thuney pouncing on the fumble, and Lewis recovered his own fumble at the Denver 1 just before Blount scored.
"That's what makes us sick, when we come out and play stout like we did today" and still lose, Chris Harris Jr. said.
Unfathomable is how Aqib Talib described losing a game in which the Broncos held Brady to 16 points and 16 completions.
"It's football," Talib said.
The Broncos outgained New England by more than 100 yards in the first quarter, but Siemian made two bad decisions that thwarted promising drives.
His throw to Emmanuel Sanders from the New England 14 was both poorly timed and poorly placed. Cornerback Ryan Logan picked it off and returned it to midfield, setting up Blount's TD run.
The Broncos reached the New England 31 on the ensuing drive. Siemian was pressured and instead of throwing the ball away dumped it off to running back Justin Forsett for a 6-yard loss that pushed Denver out of field goal range.
"I missed a couple of opportunities to at least get us some points early on," Siemian lamented. "It comes back to haunt you for sure."
PUNT RETURN PROBLEMS: Jordan Norwood, benched in favor of rookie speedster Kalif Raymond after two muffed punts in a loss against Kansas City last month, muffed his first chance Sunday when Raymond was a surprise scratch.
Norwood allowed Ryan Allen's punt to go through his arms and legs, giving the ball to the Patriots at the Denver 31. That resulted in a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
Kubiak explained he needed Norwood in three-receiver sets on offense, but Norwood fumbled away his only touch from scrimmage following a 15-yard gain in the final minute.
"He doesn't want to go out there and make a mistake," Kubiak said. "He wants to go out there and make plays. And he's done that for this team many, many times over."
SLOW DOWN: Brandon McManus' 33-yard field goal accounted for Denver's only points. They came in the first quarter, when the Broncos are the slowest starters in the NFL with just 26 points this season. But Denver limited the Patriots to a field goal in the first quarter, and New England came in with a league-leading 103-point tally in the first 15 minutes of games.
INJURIES: Broncos TE Virgil Green left with a concussion and DE Derek Wolfe missed the second half with a neck injury. Patriots DT Malcom Brown went out in the second quarter with a stomach issue.
Patriots: Host Jets on Saturday.
Broncos: Visit Chiefs on Sunday.
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