By: Steve Balestrieri
Tom Brady and the Patriots were dominated in Denver by the Broncos. (USA TODAY Images)
The Denver Broncos dominated the New England Patriots in all three phases of the game on Sunday and won the AFC Championship Game 26-16 in Denver. Peyton Manning passed for 400 yards and passed all over an over-matched New England secondary.
While the season is over for the Patriots and they ultimately fell two games short of their goal, this is a team that showed a lot of resiliency and fought once again to the end, but more of that later. First some observations about the game:
Manning This Time Picked Them Apart: Peyton Manning after hearing all week about the quarterback not being able to win the big one, shredded the Patriots secondary, hitting open receivers all over the field.
Demaryius Thomas was the big factor catching 7 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown. Thomas feasted on the smaller CBs (Alfonzo Dennard) or the inexperienced rookie (Logan Ryan) of New England after Aqib Talib went down on a questionable hit from Wes Welker that drew the ire of the Patriots players and coaches.
But to lay all of this on the Talib injury is frankly not giving Manning his due for this one. Manning was brilliant completing 32 of 43 for 400 yards for 2 touchdowns and 0 INTs. Julius Thomas was a frequent recipient of his throws hauling in 8 catches for 85 yards.
For the second season in a row an injury to Aqib Talib in the conference championship hurt the defense.
(USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots never had an answer to stop Denver and they scored on every possession after their opening one until a kneel-down to end the game. Manning’s offensive line was outstanding, the Patriots never laid a hand on him, had zero sacks, zero QB hits and 1 hurry. That frankly isn’t going to beat many QBs in this league.
Denver’s offense feasted on third downs converting 7 of 13 and held the ball for nearly 36 minutes of the clock. The 507 yards was the most ever given up by a Bill Belichick defense in the playoffs.
Play-calling in Question: Credit Denver’s front seven with doing a great job of stopping the run on Sunday holding the Patriots to only 64 yards on just 16 carries, a 104 yards less than their average the previous four games.
However the play-calling fell into an all too familiar rhythm especially early in the game, pass on first down, run on second down, pass on third down. On the Patriots first two possessions they had opportunities to assert their will physically and establish the run.
Instead Josh McDaniels called passes to Austin Collie and a deep pass to Matthew Slater on a third and three. Slater has one career reception and to attempt a very low-percentage pass that set the tone for the rest of the day.
The second half had taken them out of any kind of comfort zone and they were forced to pass in a vain attempt to catch up but the first half especially their first two drives was a time to establish a few things on the ground and mix it up.
While Brady wasn’t at his best on Sunday, he missed a wide open Julian Edelman that would have been a touchdown and Austin Collie near the end of the half that would have given the team a shot at a field goal, he gutted it out with a limited option tree that wasn’t enough on this game.
Where Was Amendola: They may be a milk carton campaign to find the Patriots big name free agency signing on Monday. We wrote last week in our Razor’s Edge column that Amendola was going to have to step up this week with both Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins hobbled.
And it’s safe to say that Amendola came up very small on Sunday, he was targeted only once and had a drop on that pass in the third quarter. Whether it was game planning, being overlooked by Brady or just not getting open, this was not the finish for the season that both the team and Amendola envisioned when he signed this spring. This may bear watching this off-season as he virtually disappeared down the stretch.
Contrast this with another gutty performance by Julian Edelman who once again did the dirty work all over the field and had 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown and the Patriots will be making a big decision (more to this later) on whether or not to re-sign Edelman this spring. But Edelman all season provided Brady with a reliable target who did the dirty work inside, outside and is always a threat after the catch.
Jamie Collins Again A Bright Spot: While it is hard to single out much on the New England defense from Sunday that would be considered worthy of much praise, the emergence down the stretch of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins is something to keep an eye on in the future.
Jamie Collins has a bright future with the Patriots.
(USA TODAY Images)
Arguably the best player on the field for the defense during their two games in the playoffs, Collins is beginning to come into his own on the field, registering seven tackles, (six solo) and a pass defensed against Denver. He had trouble with Julius Thomas in coverage but considering the dearth of a pass rush by the Patriots, it is hardly an indictment as Thomas has routinely burned more experienced linebackers.
It will be interesting to see his development next year, but right now I think it is safe to say that you’ll be looking at a starter next season. He’s solid in the running game, has very good coverage skills and is emerging as a pass rusher. With a year in the off-season weight program, he should be a stronger presence, coupled with his athleticism should be fun to watch.
Resiliency Shows Again: As badly as the Patriots were outplayed on Sunday (and they were), after a Tom Brady touchdown run, with a successful two-point conversion, the Patriots were in position to try an on-side kick and be in position to at least try for a tie game. Just a few minutes prior to that, the thought of that scenario unfolding seemed like science fiction.
It tells a lot about this version of the Pats and Bill Belichick that he wanted to say as much as he could about the team as he could after the game. “I’m proud of the team … proud to be their coach,” Belichick said.
The 2013 team is very much the anti-thesis of the 2009 team that Belichick lamented on the sidelines that he couldn’t get them to play the way he wanted them to. This was a group that over-achieved rather than under achieving.
Now What?: The Patriots are now into the 2014 off-season and are facing questions on several key agents including Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, LaGarrette Blount and Brandon Spikes. The team isn’t ready to make any decisions yet but with no easy answers being there, it will require some careful thought by the brain trust.
Talib has transformed the secondary when he’s on the field but for the second year in a row was lost during the AFC Championship and both times the secondary was a shell of itself without him. But will his cost be worth the risk?
Edelman is another interesting dilemma, a player who couldn’t stay healthy for his entire career, once thrust into a starting role, thrived and played tough all season. Blount if he can be signed for a team friendly discount should be back. Spikes, in all likelihood is gone.
Free agency and the draft will also consume plenty of time as the team must fill holes at OL, TE, DL among others. Stay tuned to PatsFans.com and we’ll keep you abreast of all the ongoing off-season developments.