FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Tom Brady's ageless performances have carried the Patriots this season.
But in a game where he and the offense struggled, New England's 16-3 win over the Broncos Sunday featured the kind of defensive effort that should make the newly-crowned AFC East champs a much tougher out in the upcoming playoffs.
The Patriots defense more than filled in the gaps as Brady was held to a season-low 188 passing yards, without a touchdown pass for only the second time in 2016.
New England's defense looked more physically imposing than the Broncos, which came in with the NFL's third-ranked defense. The Patriots held the Broncos' offense without a touchdown and forced two turnovers.
They also did it in a bruising style that had previously only shown up in flickers. It included four sacks on Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian and several more big hits on his receivers. The biggest - and loudest - example might have been a drive-ending blow delivered by Patriots safety Devin McCourty in the fourth quarter, dislodging a pass to Demaryius Thomas.
''You could just tell guys were talking and communicating,'' McCourty said. ''We're trying to get to offenses the best we can, so when we go out here on Sundays we can just fly around. ...They made a couple of plays and then we make a big play.''
It might have also been the most emphatic example that the Patriots defense can not only survive, but thrive following the trades defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jamie Collins.
Cornerback Logan Ryan, who had his first interception of the season Sunday, attributed the success to everyone remaining as loose as possible on the field.
''We're getting after the quarterback, we're playing great defense, guys are feeding off of each other, we're joking a lot and guys are just having fun playing ball right now so it's working,'' he said. ''Plus, we were doubted all year. ... We heard about (the Broncos) secondary and their defense so we wanted to come out here and prove something.''
Underestimated or not, everything has flowed together at the right time for Ryan and his teammates.
The defensive line is getting consistent production from Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown. It's exactly what the coaching staff hoped to see with Flowers healthy after being limited to just one game during his rookie season.
Flowers finished with two sacks Sunday to bring his season total to seven. Brown had one sack Sunday, increasing his total to three in 2016.
''Each week is different. Different offensive lineman, different sets, different schemes as far as defense, you just got to get to them when you can,'' Flowers said. ''Obviously I'm not the one looking at sack numbers, it's more about pressuring the quarterback. It's having him looking at the rush instead of looking down field. Anytime we can flush the quarterback and get his line rattled a bit, is big.''
Flowers said nobody in the Patriots locker room is dwelling on locking up the division title.
''Obviously we worked hard for it and we earned it,'' he said. ''But we still got a job to do so we'll continue to work for our ultimate goal.''
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower