FOXBOROUGH — If you blinked you missed Brady-Manning XIII, at least the portion of it when the Patriots’ offense was on the field.
The only thing missing from the New England attack in a 31-21 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday was a pace car. It must have gotten lost on the way to Gillette Stadium. Brady and the Patriots employed a blistering no-huddle attack for the first three quarters and then held on in the fourth quarter, when Peyton Manning finally got the Broncos’ offense up to speed.
No need to adjust your DVR. The Patriots were playing fast-forward football in real time. They ran 89 plays, 45 in the first half, and racked up a franchise-record 35 first downs against a Broncos team that was struggling to make substitutions or even line up properly. Rajon Rondo wishes he could run the fast break the way Brady did Sunday.
The Broncos were like the blue-haired old lady trying to merge on to Route 128 at rush hour as cars whizzed by.
On third and 1 from their 45 in the second quarter, the Patriots ran a play so fast that the Broncos weren’t lined up. Brandon Bolden raced through a gaping hole for a 24-yard gain. It helped set up a 23-yard field goal that made it 17-7 at the half. On the Patriots’ second drive of the second half, the Broncos were called for 12 men on the field. That was generous, considering they had about 15. The march ended in a 1-yard quarterback sneak that put the Patriots up, 24-7.
“Everything that happened out there we had seen on film,” said Broncos linebacker Joe Mays. “It was just the speed of the game. We weren’t ready for that. We prepared for it, but when we came out on the field it surprised us a little bit. We definitely have to do a better job of communicating and getting everyone on the same page.”
It didn’t seem like the laws of football and physics would allow the Patriots to play any faster. Brady was going at a speed that would have made Jimmie Johnson (that’s the NASCAR driver, not the former Cowboys coach) jealous.
Could they go faster?
“I don’t know,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “The refs were holding us back, so I don’t think you can.”
The paradox of the Patriots not taking their time running their plays was that it took time away from Manning to run his early on. The best defense turned out to be a sped-up offense. The Patriots’ first four scoring drives were 12 plays, 14, plays, 16 plays (field goal), and 16 plays. The briefest drive was 4:44.
The Brady-Manning duel actually took a back seat to the Patriots’ running game, which topped 200 yards for the second straight week.
After racking up 247 yards rushing last week against Buffalo, the Patriots raced to 251 yards on the ground on Sunday against the Broncos, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Stevan Ridley paced the Patriots’ attack with 28 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, but Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead, and even Shane Vereen, who scored a vulture touchdown in the second quarter, all got into the act.
It’s hard enough for opposing defenses to keep up with Brady, who finished a workman-like 23 of 31 for 223 yards and a TD pass, and his weapons at regular speed, but when they put their foot on the accelerator it’s almost inhumane.
It’s a tribute to the Patriots’ Swiss-watch efficiency that they’re able to operate at such speed without crashing and burning. It’s one of the many benefits of having Brady as your quarterback. If you think you can run a hyperspeed no-huddle with Mark Sanchez at the helm, you’re mistaken.
The advantage of the no-huddle is that teams are so concerned with getting their calls in and lining up they don’t have time to try to disguise their looks or substitute to match up with the Patriots’ personnel.
“We’re just trying to put a lot of pressure on those guys to get their calls in, line up, and play against us,” said Brady. “We’re running the ball against some advantageous looks. We’re throwing the ball against some advantageous looks. I think it’s important for us to be able to do both. You can’t just throw it all day. You can’t run it all day. You’ve got to be able to do both.”
This being Manning against the Patriots of course it had to get interesting, even after the Patriots built a 31-7 lead in the third quarter.
Manning (31 of 44 for 345 yards and three touchdowns) threw a pair of touchdown passes to pull the Broncos within 31-21.
There is something about the presence of Manning that makes Patriots coach Bill Belichick gamble like he’s at the blackjack table at the Bellagio.
Belichick elected to go for it on fourth and 5 from the Denver 37, up by 17, with 8:17 to go, instead of just trying to pin the Broncos deep. It was a little bit of fourth-and-2 deja vu.
Brady was strip-sacked, and even though Sebastian Vollmer recovered the Broncos took over at the New England 43. Six plays later Manning had Patriots fans everywhere in the fetal position, rocking back and forth slowly and muttering to themselves after he cut the lead to 31-21 on a 5-yard toss to Brandon Stokley.
A Ridley fumble at the Denver 37 gave Manning the ball down 10 with 5:19 to go. But Willis McGahee returned the fumbling favor at the Patriots’ 14.
Manning has orchestrated some memorable comebacks against the Patriots — the 2006 AFC title game and the fourth-and-2 game in 2009 -- but on this day he was like every other Bronco, unable to keep up with the pace of Brady and the Patriots in the end.