Two quarterbacks who couldn’t throw faced off on Sunday and the one named Peyton Manning walked away with the win, setting up a showdown against the Patriots for the AFC Championship next Sunday in Denver.
Overall, the Patriots haven’t fared well in the postseason against the Broncos, sitting with a record of 1-2 since 2001 in the postseason, with the most recent playoff loss in Denver happening back after the 2013 season when New England lost in the AFC Championship game to Peyton Manning and the Broncos 26-16 back on January 19, 2014.
The situation back then was a little different. Rob Gronkowski had been carted off the field earlier in the year against the Browns, and Julian Edelman was coming off of his first big season as a full-time receiver and was the only one who had a productive day. He caught 10 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown, but he was surrounded by a pretty limited cast. Joining him that afternoon was Austin Collie, Aaron Dobson, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, Matthew Slater, and Danny Amendola, who still wasn’t himself after being hampered the entire season with a groin injury. On the defensive side of the football, a collision between Broncos receiver Wes Welker and Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, then New England’s best cornerback, knocked Talib out of the game and swung the advantage in Denver’s favor, drawing the ire of Bill Belichick after the game.
That game already feels like a long time ago, and this current Patriots team is a battle-tested group that knows how to win and is certainly stronger on the offensive side of the football. This time Gronkowski and a much-improved Edelman will be out there together along with Amendola and Brandon LaFell, as well as Keshawn Martin, who was an excellent compliment to this group after making a key play Saturday against Kansas City.
Their most recent meeting this season was a night which saw New England come out on the wrong end of a 30-24 overtime loss. It began with a promising start, but a special teams gaffe followed by Gronkowski being carted off the field for what many feared would be an injury that could have ended his season changed the momentum of the game. Couple that in with the fact that missing that night were Amendola and Edelman, both of which are obviously two big pieces of the offense, as well as Jamie Collins, who is clearly a difference maker on defense.
Yet, even without them, prior to Gronkowski’s injury, the Patriots had run up a 14-0 lead following touchdowns to both Gronkowski and Scott Chandler, and then went up 21-7 on the first play of the fourth quarter on a 63-yard catch-and-run by Brandon Bolden.
But it was a muffed punt reception by Chris Harper that turned the tide of the game on the ensuing drive by Denver that swung the momentum. From there, the Broncos outscored the Patriots 17-3, with Stephen Gostkowski hitting a 47-yard field goal to force overtime.
Unfortunately the Patriots went 3-and-out to start overtime and Denver scored on their third play from scrimmage thanks to a 48-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson and dealt New England their first loss of the season.
It will be a battle between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady for the AFC Championship next Sunday for a chance to play in the Super Bowl in Santa Clara.
A lot has changed since then. Chiefs coach Andy Reid commented after Saturday night’s loss that the fact the Patriots had a more complete roster after getting some guys back was a major factor, and this current group should give New England a better shot at coming away with a win this time around, although there will be some questions heading into next weekend. The health of linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, who were each banged up during Saturday’s win over Kansas City, is a big question mark, as well as the health of Chandler Jones, who also reportedly suffered an undisclosed injury late in the game.
Given his athleticism, Collins’ effect is significant giving how much he brings to this defense, as well as how great the combination of both he and Hightower have been in bringing youth and speed to that side of the football. With a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, it’s going to take the Patriots’ best effort and New England’s ability to get there will certainly hinge on the health of those two players.
As good as Brady is, the Broncos remain one of the only teams he doesn’t have a winning record against. All-time he’s 7-8 against Denver including the playoffs, with his lone playoff win against Denver having come at Gillette Stadium back on January 14, 2012 when they pummeled a Tim Tebow led team 45-10 in the Divisional round. Prior to that his other loss against them was back in 2006, which was a 27-13 defeat in Denver, also in the Divisional round.
Looking back at what happened earlier this year, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic. They took a 21-7 lead into the fourth quarter on a night without their two best receivers, and save for the muffed punt along with losing the best tight end in football with just under 3:00 left in the game, the outcome still could have turned out in their favor.
History doesn’t mean much and a win in Denver against Manning would be a great way for Brady to even his playoff record against them. But it’s another big week of preparation for a team that has overcome a lot to get to this point, and hopefully enough things will fall into place for them to be healthy enough to get it done.
The two teams will play next Sunday at Sports Authority Field at 3:05pm ET.
More Patriots News Headlines: