The Patriots will look back on this one as the one that went awry from the outset. The Pats were playing a step slower and from behind all day long and could never get on track as the Broncos defense dominated the New England offensive line in their 20-18 win in the AFC Championship Game.
This was a game that the front seven of Denver took charge of right off the bat and never let up, sacking Brady 4 times and being credited with 20 QB hits. The Patriots offensive line wasn’t close to providing anywhere near the protection that Brady needed to get the job done.
Playing at home and with the crowd noise, Denver keyed in on the Patriots snap cadence and were teeing off all game long. Several times their edge rushers blew past the tackles on the outside untouched. The coaches tried to even put an extra tackle (Cameron Fleming), out there to help but he too was rendered into a turnstile without laying a hand on the defender.
The Broncos defense and coach Wade Phillips deserve a lot of praise for this one. They were able to take away the quick passing game of the Patriots and bring the heat with a very talented front seven. Von Miller led the way with 2.5 sacks and four QB hits. Derek Wolfe had a sack and four QB hits. DeMarcus Ware chipped in with a half-sack and seven QB hits.
In contrast, the Patriots edge rushers, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard…0 stands for zero. No sacks, no QB hits, no pressure. The only pressure the Patriots were able to produce was in the A-gap with Jamie Collins and Allen Branch who combined for the three Patriots sacks.
The flip side of the offensive line’s struggles was the continued inability to run the football. The Patriots were able to muster only 44 yards on the ground on 17 attempts which comes out to a measly 2.6 yard average. Brady was the team’s leading rusher with 13 yards which sends up red flags as to what kind of day it was.
In a game where they were only trailing by one score, any semblance of a running game would have taken a tremendous amount of pressure off of Brady. As a result, the Pats third down percentage was once again an awful 2 for 15.
Brady Battered but Resilient: Brady deserves a lot of credit for hanging tough in this one. He was bruised, battered and bloodied all day long. His numbers won’t reflect him having an even close to Brady-type afternoon, 27-56 for 310 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 picks, but he was under duress on nearly every play.
It marked the first post-season game where he didn’t complete at least 50 percent of his passes, and while he made some questionable decisions, he did lead the team to what should have been a tying touchdown with 12 seconds left.
The pass and catch to Rob Gronkowski for 40 yards to set them up at the 10-yard line was a beauty over double coverage. And he and Gronk hooked up again for the touchdown on a fourth-down pass from the 4-yard line. A rare Stephen Gostkowski missed PAT in the first half (his first since 2006), couldn’t have come at a worse time. It forced the Pats to go for two which the Broncos stopped to clinch the game.
Gronk is a Gamer: Rob Gronkowski had another outstanding day. The big tight end wasn’t at 100 percent, was drawing a lot of double and at times triple coverage but still came thru with a big game. Gronk hauled in eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown and although was struggling with leg cramps and dehydration was still able to make plays at crunch time.
His big 40-yard catch over double coverage was one of the best plays of the season and he was able to defeat double coverage at the back of the end zone for the potential game tying touchdown at the end of the game.
Curious Decisions to Start: The Patriots made a couple of head scratching decisions to start the game and their second really hurt them. The first was after winning the coin toss, the Pats went against their normal M.O. and elected to receive. I can’t recall the last time they did that to start a game.
Obviously the thinking was to get the ball, score quickly and make Peyton Manning play from behind. They didn’t do that and were forced to punt. Which leads to the second strange decision.
At the beginning of the game, the Patriots defense was treating Manning like the Manning from 2003 where they seemed afraid of blitzing him for fear that he’d make them pay. Well…it did. Manning was operating early in the game with impunity for the most part and after driving down to the Patriots 21-yard line on their opening possession, Owen Daniels ran down the seam.
Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich couldn’t decide who should cover him and in the end neither did. Manning laid a 35mph fastball down the middle that was way too easy for the score. That gave Denver the lead they would never relinquish. Manning would toss another touchdown to Daniels where he faked Collins out badly to the corner of the end zone.
Once they finally decided to start getting after Manning with some aggressive packages, the Broncos offense stalled for much of the rest of the game. They did get one nice run by C.J. Anderson that set them up with a field goal, but that was it.
Manning finished 17-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions although he was tagged for a fumble on a backwards pass that was picked up by Jonathan Freeny. Malcolm Butler had opportunities for two interceptions that went right thru his hands.
The Patriots defense did a good job of limiting the Broncos running game, holding them to 99 yards rushing of which nearly a third of that total was on the one run by Anderson in the second half. It wasn’t the defense that lost this one. We wrote yesterday that Manning was 3-12 when the opposition scored 19 or more points. The Patriots scored just 18 and that isn’t enough
Denver Won STs Field Position Battle: This wasn’t a stellar day for the Patriots special teams’ units. First Gostkowski misses his first PAT in 524 attempts which puts them down 7-6. Ryan Allen wasn’t able to push the Broncos back and his 46.8 average was a bit misleading.
In contrast, Denver’s special teams were constantly pinning the Patriots deep in their zone. Britton Colquitt had an outstanding day, his punts were hanging up there allowing the coverage units to get down field. He had four punts inside the 20 including a few inside the 10-yard line.
On a day where the Denver front seven was kicking the NE offensive line’s ass, it ended up being a huge win for them as they held favorable field position for much of the day.
White Targeted, Martin/LaFell Invisible: There has been calls for the Patriots to get James White more involved in the passing game. Well they certainly did that, targeting the 2nd year RB 16 times in the air. The problem was he caught only 5 passes for 45 yards.
They kept attempting to hit him on a go-route isolated on a linebacker and while a few came close, especially one in the end zone, it didn’t materialize for them. While some of the issues came about because Brady didn’t have proper time to get him the ball, one would think they would’ve looked elsewhere.
On the flip side, WRs Keshawn Martin and Brandon LaFell were relegated to milk carton status. Martin was targeted once, LaFell not at all and both were invisible. On a day where Denver was placing a premium on stopping Gronk and Edelman, they needed to make some plays and didn’t.
A disappointing end to a year that started so well, no it’s on to offseason. The draft is next up and the team will have to look to it and free agency.
Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]
Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.