By: Bob George/BosSports.net
October 07, 2012

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FOXBOROUGH -- Brady versus Manning is always nice for the bards and scribes of the NFL, but their teammates have just as much to say as to who wins and loses.

Peyton Manning made his first visit to Gillette Stadium on Sunday as a Denver Bronco, and two alarming patterns continued. Manning continues to fall way behind and bring his team almost all the way back (key operative word is "almost"), and the Patriots are still basically lousy against the pass. The Patriots were able to parlay a team record 35 first downs and still another effective ground attack into a 31-21 win, but it was a win that didn't really leave you the Patriot fan with a nice warm and comfortable feeling.

The fourth quarter was marred with key mistakes on both sides. The Patriots made a hideous decision on a fourth down which resulted in Tom Brady getting sacked and fumbling, then later Stevan Ridley ruined another stellar game with a key lost fumble. But Willis McGahee will go down as the chief goat of the game, dropping an easy pass on fourth down which would have been a first down, then coughing up the ball later to help seal the Patriot win. If not for McGahee's gaffes, Manning might have been in a position to help his team either tie or win the game.

This would have been despite the Patriots literally pounding the Bronco defense into exhaustion with a very effective no-huddle offense, with Brady finding old reliable Wes Welker for 13 catches and 104 receiving yards and making you wonder if Julian Edelman would please take his sweet time in returning from his injury. Ridley blistered the Bronco defense for 151 yards rushing and a 5.4 yards per carry average. Brady completed 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown and a 104.6. For the first three quarters, the Patriot offense was a marvel, as the Patriots had scoring drives of 12, 14, 16 and 16 plays during that stretch.

But Manning made this game just like everyone hopes a Brady-Manning duel turns into. Manning's numbers were better than Brady's, with 31 0f 45 passing for 345 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating was 116.2. With two targets as holdovers from his Colt days (Jacob Tamme, Brandon Stokley), Manning was able to riddle the suspect Patriot secondary, and Demaryius Thomas led the team with nine catches for 188 yards. Five Bronco receivers had four or more catches.

When this game is broken down and analyzed, it will be found that the Patriots simply made more plays than the Broncos did. Manning has seen his team fall behind in several of their previous games (Atlanta, Pittsburgh), then be forced to pull his team out of the abyss and rally to win. In both of the previous games, Manning failed to bring his team back all the way thanks to the Bronco defense failing to make key stops, and once again on Sunday, Manning was not able to wipe out a huge deficit (in this case, the Patriots at one point led 31-7). The big lead helps teams like the Patriots play a little more relaxed, but Manning is still very explosive and the big lead can cause the leading team to be lulled into making foolish plays at inopportune times.

Manning had a little bit of a hand in his team falling way behind. Two drives ended in Manning sacks, one of them being a strip sack by Rob Ninkovich in the third quarter which resulted in a Ridley touchdown to make it 31-7 Patriots.

But his teammates let him down worse. On the first Bronco possession, Manning hit Thomas for 43 yards on a deep left go pattern. But Sterling Moore, providing his usual suspect coverage, was able to knock the ball out of Thomas' hands, pick up the ball and give the Patriots possession at their own 17. Then you had McGahee's two mistakes in the fourth quarter, which ended any chance of a Bronco comeback. With fourth and one at the Patriot 47, Manning tried to dump the ball to a wide open McGahee in the right flat, but he turned to run too quick and dropped the easy throw. Two drives later, with second down and ten at the Patriot 14, McGahee ran up the middle for three yards and was stripped by Ninkovich. Jermaine Cunningham fell on the loose football and the Patriots were able to run out the clock.

There was another play which perhaps did more damage to the Broncos than the late McGahee mistakes. A holding call on Ryan Wendell forced the Patriots to deal with third and 17 at their own 43 early in the third quarter. The Patriots called for a left off-tackle run to Danny Woodhead. Brady would later say that the Broncos were in a "light" personnel package at the time, and Woodhead was able to cut back right and slash his way through a Bronco defense obviously selling out on the pass. Woodhead was brought down at the Bronco 38, enough for a Patriot first down. You don't see a team convert a third and 17 with an off-tackle run very often, if ever.

The Patriot pass defense is still capable of blowing up at the worst possible time and can lose winnable games down the road. The Patriots tried to clog up the middle in response to the Bills' game last week, but Manning was able to make lots of hay on dinks and dunks in the flat with only a smattering of a pass rush throughout the game. When the Patriots were able to get pressure on Manning, it was effective and can take the pressure off the secondary. But the secondary is still very susceptible to most passing attacks, and Moore, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington are still not showing the stuff of champions that they need to be showing. Whether it is technique, schema or simply lack of talent is not really clear; McCourty did have a stellar rookie season but has dropped off appreciably since.

There was also the matter of a curious fourth down call in the fourth quarter. Facing fourth down and four at the Denver 36, Bill Belichick eschewed the punt and went for the first down. Brady was hit at the 48 by Elvis Dumervil and fumbled, the ball rolling back several yards before Nate Solder fell on the football at the New England 43. Six plays later, Manning found Stokley from five yards out to pull the Broncos within 10 at 31-21. Belichick would say after the game that it was too long for a field goal, but would not directly say why he didn't want to punt

The Patriots are now 3-2 as they head for Seattle and their vaunted 12th man. Russell Wilson won't have the help of replacement officials, but he could give the Patriot secondary problems. And they get ex-Buffalo back Marshawn Lynch in the backfield.

But Manning is behind them, and they get the W. The Patriots will take that any day of the week.


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