AFC Championship 2014: Analysis

Manning (left) out-dueled Brady (right) in the 15th edition of their storied rivalry. (Photos by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Manning (left) out-dueled Brady (right) in the 15th edition of their storied rivalry. (Photos by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Task for the Pats D

There’s no question that the Broncos will amass more offensive yards and first downs than New England. The key for the Patriots defense–and what has been essential to its underrated, effective play–is to minimize the damage done by Peyton Manning and company.

And through Denver’s first two possessions, the defense did just: yielding alarming chunks of yardage through the passing game, and even allowing the Broncos to enter Patriot territory, but then stiffening up when most needed and forcing punts. In Denver’s third drive, the Patriots D once again did its part: stuffed a Broncos drive, seemingly destined for the end zone, at its own 9-yard line. And though Denver grabbed the upper side of the scoreboard with an chip-shot field goal, the proverbial “win” goes to the Pats D: the difference between allowing field goals and touchdowns will undoubtedly determine the victor of this contest.

Achieving Offensive Fluidity

After two opening, stagnant possessions, the Patriots finally develop rhythm and productive plays, a process of settling down perhaps aided by a relatively clement whether in Denver right now. Tom Brady finds a way to spread the football around the field–to his right, left, and across the middle–and help his team finally move the chains. Although the drive makes no mark on the scoreboard, the Patriots show they can effectively move the football.

Denver’s 3rd Drive Couldn’t Go Worse for Pats

The Broncos’ third drive proves devastating in multiple ways. The greatest of which occurs when all-important cornerback Aqib Talib leaves two-thirds way through the second quarter with an injury, presumably aggravating what has plagued him throughout the season.

The Patriots also have an opportunity to stall Denver’s drive after forcing a 3rd-and-10, but a Knoshown Moreno draw play completely fools the defense and gained another set of downs.

And of course, the Broncos offense tacks on another seven points, extending their lead to ten, and looking as powerful as ever.

Brady’s Response 

Tom Brady immediately serves up quite the emphatic reply to being placed into a troublesome situation, rifling a strike to Aaron Dobson for 27 yards in the middle part of the field. A pass to Shane Vereen in the flat left that totals 13 yards and another completion across the middle to fullback Michael Hoomanawanui for 15 yards follow. This further demonstrates how the Pats have settled into this game offensively through Brady’s decision to spread his pass attempts in all parts of the playing field. A Brady sack halts the drive, but the Patriots finally accomplish an important thing: scoring by ways of a Stephen Gostkowski field goal prior to halftime.

First-half look:

-LaGarrette Blount has posted 6 yards on 5 rushes, and what seemed like a potential game-changer has been nullified

-although holding the high-powered Broncos offensive to only 13 points, the Patriots defense has not applied any pressure to Peyton Manning, allowing the quarterback to feel comfortable in the pocket and consequently yielding loads of yards through the air

-as a result of the time Manning has had in the pocket as mentioned in the last note, the Denver quarterback has created fantastic rapport with his receivers–if this high level of chemistry continues in the 2nd half, the Broncos will unquestionably win this game; the task will be even taller for the Pats secondary in hindering this development, as Talib looks doubtful to return to the game

HALFTIME: Denver 13 New England 3

Demaryius Thomas's (88) TD grab on Denver's first drive of the half opened up a 17-point lead. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Demaryius Thomas’s (88) TD grab on Denver’s first drive of the half opened up a 17-point lead. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Balanced and Commanding: Broncos Half-Opening Drive

It takes 13 plays for the Broncos to march 80 yards down the field, in a span of about seven minutes, to take full control of this game. While Manning maintains his near-perfect performance, notching 52 passing yards on 6 completions out of 7 attempts, the Denver rushing attack plays an important role too: Moreno and Monte Ball combine for 28 yards, one key first down, and a couple of effective early-down runs.

Lost Points

Now facing a 20-3 deficit, a determined drive led by Tom Brady ends catastrophically and ironically: what the Patriots have failed to do all day–pressure and sack the opposing quarterback–is what the Broncos use to stall New England’s march downfield, sacking Brady on 4th down.

Broncos D-lineman Terrance Knighton's sack of Brady caused a turnover on downs. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Broncos D-lineman Terrance Knighton’s sack of Brady caused a turnover on downs. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The wasted possession–the last for the Pats in the 3rd quarter–becomes even more gut-wrenching considering that it featured a surprising emergence of the running game (22 yards on 3 carries at one point, before a -1 yard rush by Ridley that eventually led to the failed fourth-down attempt), and two spirited third-down conversions by Brady.

Defense Mitigates the Damages Again

While Manning has carved up the opposition, the Patriots defense has done its part. Furthermore, considering it has faced the best offense in the NFL, and doing so without one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Aqib Talib for the most part, the D may have done the best job it could do today.

This becomes apparent once again in Denver’s second drive that started in the 3rd quarter and entered the 4th: the Pats defense held its own deep in their own territory, stalling Manning and his offense at the one-yard line, and consequently only yielding a field goal.

A Touchdown at Last 

If the Patriots were to succeed on only their second possession of the half, and commence the comeback trail, Tom Brady would have to look farther down the field for his throws and overall, play sharper than ever. After passing for 54 yards on three passes, converting on a 4th-down play soon after, and ultimately throwing a touchdown to Julian Edelman, Brady does just that.

The Final 10 Minutes & End-Game Thoughts 

It’s easy to pin the brunt of the blame on the Patriots defense.

Allowing Manning to pass his way into New England territory to set up a 54-yard field goal that Matt Prater knocked down with ease made a potential comeback even more difficult, now requiring two touchdowns–both with 2-point conversions–to just tie the game. On the following offensive drive, this proved fatal as although Brady managed to cross the goal line, Shane Vereen was stuffed on the 2-point attempt that kept it a two-possession game.

And of course later, the defense failed to stop the strong-willed Denver offense–spearheaded by Manning–and thus couldn’t give Brady another chance with the football as time ran out.

By the time the game clock struck 0:00, the Pats defense had surrendered 400 yards through the air, another 107 on the ground, 27 first downs, forced only one punt, and allowed the Broncos to remain on the field for more than 35 minutes.

Yet despite all of this, the only number that truly matters in evaluating the Patriots defense was the points posted by the opposing offense: in this case, 26. That’s 26 points for perhaps the most explosive and potent offense in the history of the NFL, led by a quarterback in Peyton Manning who had the greatest season of any quarterbacks in the league’s history, but was held to only two touchdowns today.

The defense was never the key to winning this game–especially when its best cover-corner left the game in the 2nd quarter–but it did more than its part in keeping the Pats in the game by forcing more field goals than giving up touchdowns.

Rather, the “key” to this game, was how the offenses would match up. Scoring only three points through three quarters of play, the Patriots offense did anything but effectively match up with the opposition, with much of the onus inevitably falling on quarterback Tom Brady. While there’s only so much you can blame Brady for–forced to deal with endless injuries and losses to his receiving corps throughout the season–the future hall-of-famer had to play exceptionally throughout the entirety of the game. Simply put, he failed to do so in Denver on Sunday, and therefore deserves much of the fault for the loss.

FINAL: Denver 26 New England 16

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