Another season ends just two weeks before the Super Bowl. Yesterday’s 26-16 loss against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game sent the New England Patriots home just a tad early for the second year in a row.
Before getting into what went wrong for the Pats yesterday, let’s look at some of the positives. The Pats D did a solid job containing the run and ended up forcing the Broncos into several 3rd and long situations. Jamie Collins, who did struggle to cover TE Julius Thomas on a key third down late in the game, still played a good game overall, and with the return of Jerod Mayo next season, the Pats will have a very deep linebacking core, deeper than what coach Bill Belichick has had in recent history.
Speaking of Coach Belichick. Many thought his post-game criticism of Wes Welker’s “block” on Aqib Talib was mostly sour grapes, and nothing more. The play call itself is something that should be examined as teams are doing it all over the league. Even the Pats ran the same play on the previous drive, where FB/TE Michael Hoomanawanui was flagged for offensive pass interference (and no flag for Welker?).
But even beyond that, it seemed Welker never intended to try and get open and went right after Talib, subsequently knocking him out of the game and freeing up Demaryius Thomas to run all over the field. It was a critical play of the game and though some of Belichick’s complaining may have to do with outcome of the game, he is right to complain and perhaps this will draw some attention from a league that is always concerned about player safety.
So outside of losing Talib, what went wrong for the Pats yesterday? Offensively, they couldn’t consistently create running lanes and that was in due large part to the play of both Trevor Knighton and Danny Trevathan. Both players were all over the field, and Knighton attracted plenty of attention allowing the linebackers and safeties to make plays in the running game around the line of scrimmage.
Even without the running game going, the passing game had its moments, and should have had more. Tom Brady played a game somewhat similar to last year’s AFC title game. He missed Julian Edelman on a deep pass that could have resulted in points. He missed a few other throws, but it seemed that he was never fully comfortable in the pocket until the last scoring drive. The Broncos did a good job of collapsing the pocket, and also taking away Brady’s secondary WR options on certain plays. In all fairness, Brady had Austin Collie and an injured (of course) Danny Amendola to throw to outside of Edelman, making his job a bit more difficult.
A key play in the game was the play call in the 2nd half on a 4th and 2 deep in Broncos territory. Give credit to Belicheck for calling a great play as two of Brady’s receivers were open in the middle of the field. However, Knighton blew up the play, getting to Brady before he could even get the ball in throwing position. It was the biggest play of the game in my opinion, and allowed the Broncos to take more time off the clock and put more points on the board.
On defense, it was quite simple. They couldn’t stop the Broncos on third-downs, especially in the 2nd half. Peyton Manning had a tremendous game, but it was his performance on third-downs that separated his team from the Pats. The Broncos were 7-13 on third-down conversions for the games and were successful on downs where they needed 17 and 20 yards. Julius Thomas had four first-down conversions on his own, including a big third-down conversion in the fourth quarter.
After Talib went down, the Pats continued to rush few and try and cover these Broncos receivers. They had stretches where they covered well. but they were unable to get to Manning and you can only let him drop back and pass comfortable so many times before he burns you.
The Pats had their opportunities to get back into the game, but ultimately had a few missed opportunities that shifted the game in the Broncos favor. Assuming Manning comes back next year, something tells me the AFC title game matchup is going to look eerily similar.