By: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
January 17, 2006

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R.R. Marshall: Steve, in what will probably become known as the Debacle in Denver the Patriots turned the ball over five times and saw their quest to win a third consecutive Super Bowl end with a 27-13 loss to the Broncos. Where did all those mistakes come from?

Steve Grogan: You're, right, it was a strange game because all those mistakes were so uncharacteristic of the Patriots. A lot of crazy things happened in this game. They fell behind early and then tried to do too much. The ball Kevin Faulk fumbled he was diving over a guy instead of just covering up and getting down. Having Troy Brown running back downfield on a punt was a call by the coaches that I thought was a little out of character for them on special teams. It put him in a bad situation trying to catch that ball on the run coming from upfield. It just didn't look like the Patriots we have all come to know and love.

I thought the Patriots actually outplayed Denver on both sides of the ball minus the turnovers. Three of those turnovers resulted in Denver touchdowns and they needed a total of seven plays to get those touchdowns, and other than that the Patriots played great defense and held the Broncos to only 286 total yards. Going into the game the key was to stop the Denver running game, which they did, and to force their quarterback Jake Plummer to beat them. I didn't think Plummer could do that, but he had what might have been the best game of his career. The New England front seven really didn't get that much pressure on him, and it didn't look to me like they really tried to bring a lot of pressure. They just didn't blitz as much as they have the last four weeks, and that allowed Plummer to pick the Patriots apart. That's what won the game for them.

RRM: I imagine as hard as it is for the fans it's even tougher for the players to accept that the loss wasn't due to their getting outcoached or outplayed, but in actuality it was their own mistakes.

SG: There's no doubt about that, it was a tough pill to swallow. Tom Brady said in his postgame press conference that when you play your best football and get beat by a better team it's easier to accept, but when you go out there and spit the ball up five times it's hard to swallow. I knew that feeling as well, and it is one of the toughest things to deal with as a player.

RRM: Not that it need come across as sour grapes, but the sequence of events that would ultimately do in the Patriots started on that highly questionable pass interference call against Asante Samuel at the end of the first half. How did you view that call?

SG: It was a shame because I thought Samuel turned in one of his better games of the season. It was pretty obvious the Denver game plan had him targeted but he played well. I really thought he got a bum call on that play. For one thing it was the offensive player Ashley Lelie that initiated the contact when he put his hands on him to get separation. In a game that big you don't make that call, particularly the official that is furthest away from the play. The back judge just couldn't see that as clearly as the official who is standing right there. He got robbed, no doubt about it.

RRM: What about the Champ Bailey play when Ben Watson knocked the ball loose from him right at the end of his interception return? It sure looked to me like the ball went through the endzone for what should have been a touchback.

SG: I have to disagree; I didn't see it that way. I thought they made the right call there. Bailey got hit at about the two-yardline, and to me the ball looked like it went out to the left of the pylon. But that's just how I saw it.

RRM: The reason Bailey didn't score on that interception return was that Ben Watson ran across the entire length of the field to bump him out of bounds just short of the goalline. I knew he was fast, but did anyone know he was that fast?

SG: I've heard stories about the kind of speed the kid has, but watching that play showed me he has even more speed than people are talking about. He came from the opposite side of the field diagonally and caught up with Champ Bailey, a cornerback. The question I have is if Ben Watson has got that kind of speed how come they're not getting him the ball 10 times a game? I know they used the tight ends as blockers quite a bit in this game because of the Denver blitzers, but if they are going to do that I would use Daniel Graham for that in a two-tight end formation and let Watson get into the pass route. Next season they have got to find a way to get him the ball more often.

RRM: Tom Brady got a lot of criticism for making that throw that Bailey intercepted in the endzone. Was it a poor play on Brady's part, or just a great play by Bailey?

SG: I thought it was pretty similar to the play last week where Samuel made that great read and switch when he intercepted Byron Leftwich and returned the ball for a touchdown. Bailey switched coverage with somebody so I'm fairly sure when Brady released the ball it looked like he was turning and looking inside, and with Troy Brown running an inside/comeback route Brady figured he had it. But just as the ball was released Bailey came off his coverage and undercut the receiver. It really was a great play on his part.

RRM: What did you think of Tom Brady's play overall in this game? He overthrew Troy Brown on what could have been a touchdown and missed several other wide open receivers, all of which was decidedly unlike him.

SG: Raymond Berry used to have an old saying that if you rattle a guy's gun enough his aim is not going to be nearly as good, and Denver rattled Brady early. They were pounding him pretty hard at the start the game, and when you start taking so many of those kinds of hits early in the game as a quarterback you have a tendency to hurry things a little bit. You don't want to take a sack and you try to be a little too careful getting rid of the ball early and you're not sure where you are going to put it. As good as Tom Brady is he is no different in that regard, and I think that had a lot to do with his inaccuracy in this game.

RRM: Were you at all surprised that most of Brady's passes went to the outside of the Denver defense? They never really seemed to attack the inside.p> SG: You're right, they didn't throw over the middle that much. I don't know if it was because of the presence of their All-Pro safety John Lynch or the fact that the Denver linebackers have great speed. But I thought the Patriots' offensive game plan was right on target. They did some nice things on offense and moved the ball well enough on offense to win the game. They struggled a little bit in the first quarter but then they settled into a plan and were doing fine.

RRM: It was very unusual to see two Patriots' players nearly coming to blows on the sidelines during a game. Didn't you take that as a bad sign?

SG: A lot of things were going against them at that point in the game, and this is a group of guys that has never had that happen to them and I think they started to get frustrated that the calls and the bounces weren't going their way. Larry Izzo was in on the goalline defense (and I'm not sure why), and Willie McGinest got into something with him on the sidelines after Denver scored a touchdown. I think it was just a frustration borne out of the fact that they had never been in that situation before. I really didn't read too much into it.

RRM: It looks to be another interesting and busy offseason for the Patriots. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini is being courted by the Jets, but my question is why would anyone want to be head coach of the Jets right now?

SG: Let's face it, it's been a dead end job for a number of years now. At the same time Mangini is young enough where he can get his feet wet taking on this job and then he could go back to being a coordinator for a few more years and got another shot at a head coaching job. He is such a loyal guy to Belichick, and after what we saw last year when he negotiated to stay here that you have to think he may believe there will be better opportunities down the road. Still I wouldn't blame him if he took the Jets' job, but it would create a void here. It will be the second defensive coordinator they've lost in as many years. They were grooming Mangini to prepare for the time when Romeo Crennel left, and I don't think they've had time to groom somebody else yet so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

RRM: The talk has already started about the Patriots' needing to resign Richard Seymour over the offseason. Realistically they can't allow him to leave, can they?

SG: I don't think so, no. Getting Seymour signed will be one of the top priorities over this offseason, and despite what people are saying I don't think it will be a problem. They can always put the franchise tag on him so he can't leave. They also have to deal with both Adam Vinatieri and David Givens. I've really come to appreciate Givens' talent, but I think you can find somebody to fill his spot a lot easier than those of either Seymour or even Vinatieri. Most people don't think another team will break the bank on a kicker, but look at Bill Parcells in Dallas. He went through two or three kickers this season without much success. It's also a lot warmer and easier to kick in Texas. There are going to be changes, there always are, but the Patriots always seem to roll with the punches and find people to fill the holes.

RRM: What areas on the team do you feel the Patriots will try to address?

SG: I think they've got to find some help in the defensive secondary and get a little younger at linebacker because some of those linebackers are getting up there in age. On offense I think they are in pretty good shape if Corey Dillon and all the injured offensive linemen come back strong. If Dillon can't return to form they are going to have to find a running back to replace him. But this is the kind of team where as long as they have a solid defense (which they should have for another four years or so) they still can rely on having a great quarterback in Brady and a great coach in Belichick, so they are going to remain competitive and be in the playoff hunt every year.

RRM: The fans are still bemoaning the fact that had the Patriots won they would be hosting the AFC Championship Game this Sunday since the Steelers upset the Colts. What happened to the mighty Colts?

SG: Believe me, as bad as we're all feeling around here you have to wonder how the Colts are feeling right now. There's a team that is supposed to be the best in football, and to just get manhandled the way they did is really embarrassing. Some of the play calls at the end of the game by the Colts were really puzzling. I thought Peyton Manning who is supposed to be the best quarterback in the NFL really mismanaged the clock. He was up to the line of scrimmage with the clock ticking down to the two-minute warning and they didn't get a play off because he was too busy making all his calls and gyrations.

RRM: I was shocked to hear that Peyton Manning put the blame for the loss on his offensive line. Isn't that a major no-no for a quarterback?

SG: His offensive line played horribly, but Peyton Manning didn't play very well either. He's a guy that is getting frustrated with the fact that he can not win in the playoffs and it has got to be driving him crazy. He definitely didn't have a lot of time to throw against the Steelers, but it also looked to me like he wasn't getting the hot reads like he usually does. I don't know what their pass protection scheme was, but he kept letting free blitzers come off of his blindside all day. Most teams have some kind of a hot route to get rid of the ball, but he just kept taking sack after sack. When you blitz as many guys from the side like the Steelers did you have to get rid of the ball, and he wasn't doing that. It certainly looked like the Colts were outcoached in this game

RRM: I hear the joke is the Patriots did their fans a favor by saving them the trouble of having to go to Detroit for the Super Bowl. Since they are still playing the game what is your Super Bowl pick?

SG: I heard that one as well, and given the weather problems the last time they played the game there I'm surprised they're going back there again [laughs]. I think Seattle is still the best team in the NFC and I think they will beat Carolina at home. Denver has a more solid, all-around team so I think it will be a Denver-Seattle Super Bowl. It should be a pretty evenly matched Super Bowl, and since we have to root for the AFC I guess that means Denver will have to win!

RRM: What are Grogan's Grades for the 27-13 season-ending loss in Denver in Week #18?

SG: This game was very hard to grade. The defense I thought merited an A while the offense probably a B-. The special teams also have to be mentioned as they only deserved a C- for their shoddy play in this game. I guess for the game an overall grade of B- would be fair. There were just too many mistakes for them to overcome, but we knew going into the season it would be a difficult challenge for them to win an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl and it turned out to be exactly the case.

As far as my final grade for the season I would give them a solid B. I really thought they overachieved as a team. I think when they look back on things they will be pleased with what they were able to do. I don't think any other team in the league could have accomplished what the Patriots' did this season given the adversity they faced. With all the injuries and the number of starters they had that wound up on injured reserve, and to still get two games deep into the playoffs is really incredible.

I'm really amazed at all the comments about how the Patriots' glory days are behind them. Look at the Steelers back in the 1970's. They won back to back Super bowls in 1974 and 1975, and it took them two years to get things back together and they won two more. So it would not surprise me to see this team do that. Even though the season ended on a sour note it was a lot of fun, and I look forward to seeing everyone again next September!

Grogan's Grades for Week #18

Offense: B-
Defense: A
Overall: B

R.R. Marshall's Q & A columns on the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, and Boston College Eagles appear year round in both the electronic and print media. He can be reached at [email protected]