I had a dream last night that I missed the game today.
I had a dream that last night, that the Patriots ended up defeating the Broncos, 35-24, and would move on to Super Bowl 50 out in Santa Clara.
Of course, this was a dream. And, in reality, the Patriots are not moving on to the Super Bowl in 2 weeks time. So as I put away my Tom Brady jersey for the next 8 months, and have the NFC Championship game in the background, it's time to reflect on the fine piece of football I just witnessed.
So the Broncos controlled a lot of the first half of the game. Peyton Manning came out slinging the ball all over the field, which the Patriots were just not prepared for. The Patriots had too much faith in their offense, and weren't able to move the ball effectively on their opening drive. Denver got the ball and quickly went to work. 7-0, Denver early.
If it weren't for the Patriots defense (and a few lucky breaks), this game might have been 31-9 at halftime. Peyton Manning's failed lateral ended up as points for the Patriots, however, Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point. 7-6, Denver.
Peyton Manning goes back to work and shreds the Patriots on third down (Denver was 6-17 on third down. Not spectacular, but better than the Patriots, who were only 2 for 15). Just like that, a quarterback with only one touchdown pass at home all season suddenly has 2 in the AFC title game. 14-6, Denver. The teams exchange field goals, and it's 17-9 at halftime.
One more time trading field goals, and we sit at 20-12 with 2 minutes to play. The Patriots come down to the 1, end up with the touchdown, but don't get the 2-point conversion to tie the game with 12 seconds to play. 20-18, Denver. Peyton Manning goes on to his 4th Super Bowl, his second as a Denver Bronco.
So, things to take away from this game:
1. Patriots MVP: The entire defensive unit.
Without various defensive stops for New England, this game wouldn't have been close. Actually, the game really wasn't as close as the score indicated, but the defense gave New England hope. Time and time again, the Patriots stopped the Broncos on third down. Given, they still converted four more times than the Patriots did, but still. The game, at least on the scoreboard, was never out of reach for New England, Denver was never able to get more than 8 points ahead. In the fourth quarter alone, the defense gave the offense multiple chances to tie the game. First around the 10 minute mark, then again at the 5:30 (or so) mark, then again at the 2-minute warning, when Amendola's punt put the Patriots in position at the fifty-yard line. If the phrase "Defense wins championships" held true at any time, it definitely held true in this game for the Patriots.
2. Broncos MVP: Von Miller.
So there was just no way to stop Von Miller today, plain and simple. The guy was everywhere. He had 2.5 sacks, an interception, and was just there on multiple attempts to stop the Patriots (and I think he might have even been there on the 2-point conversion- not that I'm going to sit through it again) on critical third down situations. The offensive line looked like shit on the right side, with Marcus Cannon getting beat by Miller on almost every pass play. New England really missed Nate Solder in this game, who was gone for the year with a torn bicep. But even if you were going to switch lineman assignments, and have Cannon switch with Sebastian Vollmer on the other side, DeMarcus Ware would have beaten Cannon on every play, and we'd have blind side hits on #12 left and right. Offensive line issues aside, hats off to Von Miller today. He came to play, and New England was just too overwhelmed and undermanned to handle him.
3. Julian Edelman being on the field does not equal automatic production.
Let's be clear on this. Yes, the Patriots were able to beat the Chiefs in the annual "Tomato Can Game," as Dan Shaughnessy calls it. Kansas City had played almost NOBODY in their 10-game win streak. The two teams they beat that were good down the stretch were Pittsburgh (who had no Ben Roethlisberger), and Denver (the game where Manning threw 5 picks). Other than that, it was Detroit, San Diego, Oakland, Buffalo, Baltimore, and Cleveland. So when Brady comes out in the Divisional game and throws short ball after short ball to Edelman, that doesn't mean that the offense is suddenly back. What it comes down to, and we saw this in the game today, is the play of the offensive line, which was in shambles against Ware and Miller. Brady took too many hits today, and wasn't able to get the ball to his receivers, who were also masterfully covered by Wade Phillips' secondary. I mean sure, the Broncos had some key players go down late like Wolfe and TJ Ward, giving a little bit of leeway for Brady to throw, but the majority of the game was won by Denver up at the line of scrimmage. Edelman had 7 catches for 53 yards in this game. Against Kansas City, he had 10 catches for 100 yards. It doesn't matter if Julian Edelman is back, and the offense was flying high again. One player can't do it all.
4. You cannot blame Stephen Gostkowski for this loss.
I mean, you absolutely can blame Stephen Gostkowski for this loss. The extra point was literally the difference in this game. Everyone who was livid at the new extra point rule obviously didn't live in New England, as Gostkowski hadn't missed an extra point since 2006. But the new rule eventually came back to haunt the Patriots, as the potential game-tying field goal sailed wide right. However, I think of the Seattle-Minnesota game and Blair Walsh's missed field goal. You can't blame the kicker for this shit, especially when he accounted for ALL of your team's points. Gostkowski kept the Patriots in this game, scoring 6 of the 18 points in this game. If he doesn't hit the field goal to make it 17-12, this game is over when CJ Anderson bursts through the line for a gain of 30, and McManus puts it through to make it 20-9 with 10 minutes to go (or worse, Manning throws his 3rd touchdown of the game, which would have made it 24-9). I don't blame Gostkowski for this loss. Kicking field goals ain't easy, and no one's perfect. Also, he got us that win over the Giants, so I give him a free pass on this one. He's still the best kicker in football. Everyone has a screwup moment, it's just unfortunate that this one came in the AFC Championship.
5. Bill Belichick actually could have used his kicker TWICE in the 4th and won the game.
Fourth and 1 from the Denver 16. 20-12. If Belichick sends Gostkowski onto the field for a 33 yard field goal (Gostkowski's not missing two of those in one game), it's 20-15. He could have even done it AGAIN when it was 4th and 6 at the Denver 14. 20-18. Instead, Belichick opts to go for it twice, and gets stuffed both times. In both instances, New England stopped Denver for a 3-and-out: as in THREE plays. On BOTH drives. The game could have easily been won, 21-20.
6. Can we blame the two losses at the end of the year for this loss NOW?
I think we can. You decided to rest up and play for health instead of playoff seeding and look where it got you- a seat on the couch on February 7th. You had to win ONE game out of your last two. You had to win THREE games, basically out of your last SIX, and you couldn't. The loss at Miami is unforgivable, in hindsight. The Dolphins didn't want to win that game. If you win any of those four games (at Denver- which I understand the loss to, Philadelphia- another unforgivable loss, New York- which I understand the loss to, and Miami- *shakes head in disgust*), the AFC title game is in New England, and you might be going back to the Super Bowl. But you're not. I really hope Bill decides to think a little differently next year if he's in this position.
7. This is Peyton Manning's last season in Denver.
And, if he wins the Super Bowl (which I highly doubt), it will be his last season in the NFL. If the San Diego Chargers hadn't freaked out when Manning came in the game in week 17, perhaps we would have a different story, and the AFC Title Game would have been in New England. But they didn't, and it wasn't. Say what you want about Brock Osweiler, the kid's good, and the Denver offensive system really works for him. Peyton Manning's age is a liability. He looked pretty good today, but who's to say that he won't show up next season and do the same thing all over again? I don't think the Broncos are too interested in having that happen to him and their team again. I think Manning will be back for at least one more year, but it will be with another team.
8. What do the Patriots need to do this offseason?
Really take a look at your damn offensive line, that's what. Find a way to protect your quarterback, that's what. Get some new offensive weapons, that's what. Best case scenario: the Patriots will go out and get Calvin Johnson, who has made it evident that he doesn't want any part of being in Detroit anymore. Also, this is Anquan Boldin's final year in San Francisco. This was Brandon LaFell's last game in a Patriot uniform. And you think they're gonna rely on the deep ball to Keyshawn Martin? Keep dreaming. They're going to be looking to get better on the offensive line, which was PITIFUL today, and for much of the season. Brady's getting older and you need to protect him better. They had a chance to get Russell Okung from Seattle, and I was surprised it didn't go through. Additionally, they're going to lose both LaGarrette Blount and Stephen Jackson. Look for the Patriots to find some new running backs in this year's draft.
9. The Super Bowl is going to be a blowout.
Sorry, guys. The NFC Champion is going to blow out the Denver Broncos. Sure, the Denver defense is good, but the offense really sucks something else. If Carolina's in the Super Bowl, and they get rolling early, see ya later. If it's Arizona, they can wear you down on offense and defense. Peyton Manning doesn't have a prayer in this game. It might be "close" on the scoreboard, but the NFC Champion is going to roll over the AFC Champion. Or maybe I'm just bitter. Hopefully the former.
10. Final Takeaway: The better team won today.
I mean, it's simple, but it's true. Could the Patriots have won this game? Absolutely. Does it sting the the Broncos won? Absolutely it does. But the better team won today, guys. There were no bogus, game-deciding calls. With the exception of the missed extra point, the game came right down to the wire, right down to a game-tying two-point conversion- so there were no "oh, THAT'S where the game was lost" plays in the second or third quarters. The Patriots looked so bad on offense because the Broncos looked so damn good on defense. You can't win if you don't score points. You can't score points if you can't move the ball. You can't move the ball if the other team's defense is down your quarterback's throat and his targets are covered all the time. Sure, things might have been easier for New England if they decided to be smarter about certain things, like deciding what to do on 4th down. But overall, I think the Broncos came in for this game ready to face the animal that was the Patriots. They wanted it more, and they played better. The Patriots' weaknesses were laid out for you clear as day in this game: Poor offensive line play, which resulted in lots and lots of defensive pressure on Tom Brady, plus an inability to run the ball effectively; and not allowing Brady's quick receivers to get open. With no real deep threat, and having two or three guys on Gronk, all you really need to do is cover Edelman and Amendola, which Talib and Harris did a great job of today. Put pressure on Tom Brady, and the game is won. That's all there is. Better luck next year, boys.
I enjoy making lists, countdowns, and making sense of the world that I see around me.