- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Tom Brady visited the turf more than the end zone during last season’s AFC championship game against the Broncos.

Blitzed and harassed throughout the 20-18 loss, Brady was sacked four times and hit a total of 23 times as injuries and a lack of continuity caught up with the New England offensive line, which struggled to find consistency during the season.

An offseason coaching shake up and some personnel changes have helped the Patriots do a much better job protecting their 39-year-old quarterback.

But they’ll find out just how much progress they’ve made Sunday as they head to Denver for a rematch against the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense and arguably its best pass rusher in Von Miller. In his last five games against the Patriots, Miller has 7½ sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and interception.

“They bring a lot of challenges,” Patriots left tackle Nate Solder said. “They’re exceptional pass rushers, and they do well on the run, too. It’s a real challenge all-around.”

New England has allowed only 21 sacks through 13 games this season, tied with Dallas for the 25th fewest in the NFL. By comparison, the Patriots gave up 38 sacks during the 2015 regular season, 14th most in the league, and their most since allowing 40 in 2013.

They’ve been most impressive over the past four games, allowing only two sacks. Rookie left guard Joe Thuney and right tackle Marcus Cannon have yet to allow a sack on Brady this season.

Thuney also has been one of the team’s ironmen in 2016, starting all 13 games along with center David Andrews. Cannon, Solder and right guard Shaq Mason have each missed only one game.

“It’s been a whole group effort,” Thuney said. “There’s still a lot I can improve on, trust me. I try not to think about that stuff and try and improve on something little every day.”

Thuney has been everything the Patriots hoped he would be when they selected him in the third round in the draft this past spring. He shined during offseason workouts and training camp, supplanting Josh Kline, who was released in September.

The Patriots also liked what they saw out of Andrews in his 11 starts last season enough to part ways with Bryan Stork. Meanwhile, Solder has held his own at left tackle with Sebastian Vollmer on the physically unable to perform list.

Perhaps the biggest thing that’s aided in the turnaround has been the return of veteran Dante Scarnecchia as offensive line coach. He was lured out of retirement by coach Bill Belichick to replace Dave DeGuglielmo, who was let go in the offseason.

Scarnecchia, among other things, has cut down on the rotations that were staples of DeGuglielmo’s approach. Keeping guys on the field longer together helped the group develop chemistry faster.

So far, Belichick is a fan.

“I think just the overall coordination of the group and function of the group together, just working together, communicating together, seeing things, just reacting, that split-second reaction can make all of the difference in the world,” Belichick said. “The better we are at that, the better those guys are at doing it together, those are all positives.”

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For more NFL coverage: https://www.pro32.ap.org and https://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/khightower

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