DENVER – It will be painful to reflect back on the season and to think that it all came down to a senseless late season loss at Miami.
That loss gave Denver the home field for the AFC Championship Game. Instead of 35 degrees in Foxborough, it was 62 degrees in Denver. Peyton Manning, instead of freezing his behind off and being pressured into one mistake after another, breezed through the porous and inept Patriot defense without breaking a sweat. The Bronco defense, inspired by the home crowd and helped by the fact that this is the one venue Tom Brady cannot do well in, played its best game of the year. The Broncos punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII with a 26-16 win over the Patriots on Sunday at Sports Authority Field, sending the 2013 Patriots to a season-ending defeat that really came down to the fact that the game was here in Denver and not Gillette Stadium.
This game was all Denver on all fronts. Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels lost a coaching battle they were seemingly predestined to win. Manning was able to run a slick and balanced offense which featured underneath crossing patterns that the Patriots couldn’t stop even if they brought back their secondary from ten years ago. Brady was hamstrung by bad play calling, a running game that never was, and a Denver defense that somehow found a way to be good for a change.
The offensive game plan by Denver was simply perfect. Rather than try and gash the Patriots with deep slants and in-cuts, Manning instead made great use of the crossing pattern. He made a lot of early hay with short but effective passes to Eric Decker and Wes Welker. Only later on when the Patriot defense started to tire did Manning go for deeper slant routes to Demaryius Thomas.
With the Patriots forced to respect the short crossing patterns, it helped open up rushing lanes for Knowshon Moreno. One particular play in general was in the second quarter, when on third down and 10 from the Patriot 39, Manning handed off to Moreno on a draw play out of the shotgun and it went for 28 yards thanks to this gaping hole on the right side the offensive line opened up.
Defensively, the Broncos were helped somewhat by bad play calling by McDaniels. On the first two offensive series for the Patriots, they went short pass, run for no gain, incomplete pass, punt. McDaniels made almost no effort early on to establish the run by running on first down.
Brady also was called on to make low percentage deep throws and touch passes which normally don’t work. In the first quarter the second offensive possession ended when he tried to lob a pass deep right for Matthew Slater, but overthrew him. Later in the quarter, he had Julian Edelman wide open on a deep left sideline route, but overthrew him. Late in the second half, while trying to get into field goal range just before halftime, he tried to hit Austin Collie on a deep right sideline pass. Collie was wide open but the pass was out of bounds and over his head.
The more the Patriot defense had to stay out on the field, the more tired they got and the more Manning was able to control the game time-wise. On two occasions Manning led drives of seven minutes or more, and three drives were of ten plays or more. The 93-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter foretold bad tidings to come for the Patriots in general. The Patriots were brutal in getting off the field; the Broncos converted 7 of 13 third down attempts. After being held three and out on the initial drive, the Broncos scored on their next six possessions. The Patriots simply could do nothing to stop Manning and his passing juggernaut. The only thing the Patriot defense could hang their hat on was that they did play well in the Red Area, holding the Broncos to field goals on four drives.
In a sad reminder of last season, Aqib Talib was hurt early in the second quarter when he tripped over Welker and had to leave the game with bruised ribs. This once again hurt the pass coverage as Alfonzo Dennard was forced to cover Demaryius Thomas, and Logan Ryan was picked on quite a bit by Manning. This marks the second year in a row that the other team’s passing attack was helped by an injury to Talib in a conference championship game.
Manning’s final numbers pretty much told the whole story. He finished 32 of 43 passing for 400 yards and two touchdowns and a 118.4 passer rating. Once Demaryius Thomas was able to get worked into the offense, he caught fire in the second quarter and finished with 134 yards receiving on seven catches. Julius Thomas, the Pro Bowl tight end who did not play in the Week 12 game at Foxborough, had eight catches for 85 yards. Decker had five catches for 73 yards. Manning connected with eight different receivers in another stunning display of offensive balance.
The Patriots got away from what won them the previous matchup by shutting down the passing game and daring Denver to win by the run game. In this game, the reverse happened; Moreno was held to 59 yards on 14 carries, and Montee Ball had 43 yards on 12 carries. With Manning having such easy pickings on short passes, the running game for Denver became inconsequential.
Brady, meanwhile, finished 24 of 38 passing for 277 yards, a touchdown and a respectable 93.9 rating. He was sacked twice and never got into a good rhythm all game long. He had several overthrows and was not able to find holes in the Bronco back seven as he had earlier this season. Julian Edelman had ten catches for 89 yards, but perhaps the most glaring stat of the game was that Danny Amendola had zero catches and one drop.
About the only thing that went well for the Patriots was that they did not turn the ball over. Of course, neither did Denver. Brady made only one foolish throw, a rushed lob pass over the middle that Shane Vereen was able to haul in. But in all phases of the game, Denver simply bested the Patriots and sent them home for the offseason disappointed and forlorn.
Manning now advances to his third Super Bowl, and will be an underdog versus whichever NFC team he has to face. He will also have to play in the cold, and long-range forecasts for the New York area portend snow for February 2. Manning still needs to win the big one for him to validate his career, so his work is not done.
Meanwhile, the Patriots should be proud to get as far as they did despite all the adversity they faced in 2013. In this loss to Denver, guys like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were more missed than Rob Gronkowski was. Still, the Patriots won’t go home happy, but what they did this year was nothing short of remarkable.
But the Patriots aren’t going to the Super Bowl. Another Patriot season ends in Denver. Most people love this beautiful city. New Englanders probably hate it now.