FOXBOROUGH, Mass. ó No one saw this coming.
The Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots are the class of the AFC, but the Patriots took the Broncos to school on Sunday.
A battle for the best record in the AFC turned into a blowout. The Patriots stormed out to a 27-7 halftime lead and never looked back, picking up a 43-21 victory over the Broncos.
The Patriots dominated on both sides of the ball, but the defense held the Broncos without a third-down conversion in the first half (0-for-5) and forced two turnovers. The offense marched up and down the field, and capitalized on the strong showing by the defense.
As always, there were some risers and fallers in this game, so here's a look at some on each end of the spectrum after the big win.
Brandon Browner: The Patriots would never add a player to their roster specifically for one game, but when they went out and picked up Brandon Browner this offseason, it was a clear response to their need for size and physicality in the secondary. Browner gave them both on Sunday. Despite drawing three flags on the night (two on iffy calls), bringing his three-game total to seven, Browner had several key plays on the night. He broke up a pair of passes, and had an interception on a tipped ball that set the Patriots up inside the red zone.
Julian Edelman: With nine receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown, Julian Edelman had a solid enough performance on offense. Add in his 84-yard touchdown on a punt return, and Edelman was a game-breaker for the Patriots on Sunday. It's been a rough couple of weeks for Edelman, who had only five catches over the past two games, but he proved he is still a key component of the Patriots offense.
Tom Brady: Peyton Manning has set plenty of records in his day, but Tom Brady moved forward a step in several categories. He threw four touchdown passes for the 22nd time in his career, tying Dan Marino; he also surpassed former Broncos quarterback John Elway for fifth on the all-time passing yardage leaderboard. He out-dueled Manning in nearly every statistical category, with a higher completion percentage (62.3 to 59.6), more touchdown passes (4 to 2), and a higher passer rating (97.4 to 80.9). Gillette Stadium even broke into a "Bra-dy's bet-ter!" chant in the fourth quarter to throw an exclamation mark at the end of another signature Brady performance.
Defensive line: As good as the Patriots secondary was on Sunday, their defensive front was a huge key in the victory. A year after rushing for 280 yards against the Patriots defense, the Broncos offense produced just barely 20 percent of those rushing yards with a total of 43 on the night, 21 in the first half, and 18 on three garbage-time runs at the end of the game. The Patriots were not going to let the Broncos eat them alive on the ground like they did last year.
Malcolm Butler: Any defense should expect that their least-experienced cornerback will likely be targeted frequently in any game against Peyton Manning. Malcolm Butler was the one with the bulls-eye on his back on Sunday, and he gave up no fewer than five completions into his coverage. Butler shouldn't hang his head too long after being exposed by one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but this game was a reminder that Butler has a long way to go in his development.
Brandon LaFell: Brandon LaFell finished with a respectable six receptions on 13 targets for 53 yards and a touchdown, but there were at least two drops on catchable balls, and two catchable if off-target deep passes that slipped through his fingers. He was also flagged for an illegal shift. LaFell has been red hot over the past two months, but Sunday proved that he is far from infallible despite his improved play.