Heading into Sunday's match-up against the Broncos everyone knew the threat Denver's offense posed for the Patriots defensively. Hopefully if all went well, all New England's defense had to do was keep the game within striking distance for their offense, which should have left Bill Belichick's club able to be competitive enough to win.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.
While the Broncos offense did a good job of holding the football and moving the chains, ultimately when it counted the Patriots defense kept Denver out of the end zone and prevented Peyton Manning and company from piling up points badly enough to give them an opportunity to beat them.
They allowed just 13 points in the first half, and 13 in the second. That should have been enough for the Patriots to work with considering they hadn't scored less than 30 points since back on December 15th when they lost to the Dolphins down in Maimi 24-20. Since then it appeared they had figured things out, having scored 41 against Baltimore, 34 against the Bills, along with 43 last week against Indianapolis.
Instead New England mustered all of three points in the first half of play, and waited until it was too little, too late in the fourth quarter to put up their remaining 13 points in one of the more frustrating losing efforts we've seen all year.
The Patriots had their chances, including an overthrow early in the game on a play they had set up perfectly in the first half. Brady executed a perfect play-action pass to Julian Edelman after New England had opened things up late in the first quarter. Edelman had gotten behind the defense and Brady overthrew him badly, squandering a potential opportunity grab the lead back after the Broncos had kicked a field goal to get ahead early at 3-0.
Brady missed another big opportunity before the half ended on a 40-yard pass attempt to Austin Collie, who he also had wide open. Once again, Brady overthrew him and prevented Steve Gostkowski from potentially having a chance to kick a field goal, which would have cut the lead to just seven. Instead Denver took a 13-3 lead into the locker room after two quarters of play.
After the game Brady shouldered some of the blame, saying there was certainly more he could have done better.
"I mean anytime we lose there's things I can do better," said Brady. "So certainly there's things I wish I could have done better today to help us win."
Denver seemingly game-planned things to take away the Patriots' ground game in order to force Brady to beat them through the air. They made LeGarrette Blount completely irrelevant (he finished with 5 attempts for just 6-yards) and completely eliminated the running game that they had spent the past few weeks trying to establish.
With the ball in Brady's hands he finished 24-of-38 (63%) for 277 yards along with a touchdown. However, it was Julian Edelman who once again came up with a big performance, finishing with 10 catches for 89 yards along with their lone passing touchdown. On the other side of the spectrum Danny Amendola was targeted just once, with his injured groin, once again, making him less of a threat. That left New England slightly undermanned, which is a problem they've faced in the postseason repeatedly in recent years.
New England needed to make the most of every series, because Denver was methodically moving the football down the field and kept the ball out of their hands. Overall the Patriots only ran just 56 offensive plays on Sunday, marking the first time all year they ran less than 60 plays in a game. It was their lowest offensive play total since they ran just 60 back in week five. They also finished Sunday's game in Denver just six of twelve on third down (50%), with Denver holding a decided edge in time of possession with 35:44 compared to just 24:16 for New England.
The Patriots defense bent but in scoring territory didn't break, allowing just two touchdowns and four field goals. Facing one of the toughest offenses in the league this wasn't going to be a low scoring game, and unfortunately the Broncos came to play. On Sunday, New England just couldn't do enough offensively to answer and ultimately it cost them.
"We were able to hold them to some field goals defensively, but our third down defense and our third down offense, especially in the first half, let them get too far ahead," said Belichick. "They were able to stay on the field, had the ball, had field position, and even the couple of times we held them to field goals we still didn't have possession of the ball."
"We were just trying to keep them out of the end zone and I mean, that's O.K., but it would be a lot better if we could stop them on third down and get the ball back. We just weren't able to do that and then conversely, we weren't able to do it offensively."
In the end, when the Patriots look back at this game they'll probably realize they did enough defensively to at least put themselves in a position to win. With the window slowly closing on the Brady and Bill Belichick era, it's hard not to be a little frustrated considering the fact that as beaten up as they've been injury-wise this season, they still had their opportunities to win this game.
It's unfortunate, and Belichick said after the game there's a lot of things he wishes they could have done differently. But in the end Belichick also said he's still proud of the way his team fought this season.
"I'm proud of our football team, proud of everything we did this year," said Belichick. "We've got a lot of guys in that locker room that really played hard, played well, gave everything they had all season long, and I'm proud to be their coach. I just wish it could have ended a little bit better for us today. But again, give Denver credit, they did a good job."