Of all the things the Patriots deserve credit for in Sunday night’s 34-31 comeback win over the Broncos, one sticks out above the rest after watching the coaches’ film:
Bill Belichick stuck to the game plan and didn’t panic.
Belichick clearly felt his receivers, tight ends, and running backs could take advantage of one-on-one matchups against Denver’s linebackers and secondary. And he knew the Broncos were gashing the Patriots’ defense with the running game, but allowing 6 yards on a run was much better than 60 yards on a pass.
The fumbles and sloppy play in the first half didn’t allow the Patriots to get into a rhythm. But after halftime, Belichick and Tom Brady got to work.
The Patriots’ offense resembled a basketball team in the second half. They ran a football version of the pick and roll, using one receiver to set a legal screen for another to create space. Rob Gronkowski played like a power forward, using his ample frame to box out linebacker Wesley Woodyard and catch a touchdown. And they even threw a few alley-oops — lob passes to Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, and Julian Edelman on wheel routes. Gronkowski caught one for 33 yards, Edelman caught a touchdown, and Vereen dropped what would have been a huge play, all on wheel routes.
And defensively, the Patriots didn’t budge. They stuck with a two-deep safety defense throughout the night, and while they couldn’t stop Knowshon Moreno, they also prevented Peyton Manning from getting into a groove. Manning was mostly skittish and indecisive in the fourth quarter and overtime when he finally had to pass the ball.
If not for the fumbles, this game could have been a blowout victory for the Patriots. New England had matchup advantages across the board on offense, and the Broncos were too uncomfortable in the cold to keep pace in a shootout.
Two interesting stats of note, to quantify how remarkable the comeback was: The Patriots had a 2.2 percent chance to win at halftime. And NFL teams are now 6-617 all time when trailing by 24-plus points at halftime.
A review of the game after watching the film:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ Stevan Ridley doesn’t deserve much benefit of the doubt with his fumbling problem, given he has lost one in three straight games. But with 11 total fumbles in the game, the cold weather clearly had an effect on the grip, and his fumble on the opening drive Sunday was more of a fluke than anything. Woodyard slipped into the backfield untouched past Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins, and by chance happened to get his helmet squarely on the football and pop it loose. We’ll give LeGarrette Blount a pass as well — he took a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit and appeared to be shaken up on his fumble.
■ Brutal night for Nate Solder, who gave his best matador impression when attempting to block Von Miller, who beat him around the edge for two sacks, a forced fumble, three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. Solder, at 6 feet 8 inches and 320 pounds, was simply not quick enough to handle Miller (6-3, 250). But Solder does deserve credit for helping seal the edge on Brandon Bolden’s 33-yard run, as do Mankins, Rob Gronkowski, and Ryan Wendell. Mankins had a phenomenal performance in the run game, pulling through the hole and delivering several devastating blocks. Vereen had an excellent chip block on Miller, knocking him on his butt.
■ The Broncos often stacked eight and even nine defenders in the box in the first half, daring the Patriots to throw deep. The Broncos backed off in the second half and switched to two-deep man coverage, and Brady picked them apart for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Of his 48 passes for the game, 33 were thrown less than 10 yards in the air, and another 10 were between 10-20 yards. He only completed one long pass — a 43-yarder to Edelman in the third quarter on just a two-man route that was impressive because it was against the wind. At the end of the first half, Brady’s hail mary throw died at the 5-yard line.
■ Brady was sacked three times in the first half but zero times after halftime, thanks to a lot of quick passes over the middle and a liberal use of the play-action pass. The play-action slant to Kenbrell Thompkins against Kayvon Webster and Quentin Jammer worked over and over and it opened up the middle of the field for Gronkowski, as well. Woodyard, linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Duke Ihenacho had no chance of covering Gronkowski, who had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
When the Broncos had the ball . . .
■ The strong winds and Manning’s weak throwing arm compacted the field for the Patriots defense. Only one of Manning’s 36 passes traveled farther than 20 yards in the air, and 24 of the passes went 10 yards or fewer. But the Patriots played two-deep safety for the entire game, and were content to give up short throws and runs to Moreno as long as they contained the Broncos’ yards after the catch. The Patriots mixed their coverages between man, Cover 2, and Cover 3, and we only counted seven blitzes on 38 passing plays.
■ Manning looked uncomfortable all night. Both of his sacks were “selfies” in which he went down without being touched. In the fourth quarter, he hurried his throws despite having plenty of time and space, and threw incomplete while missing wide open receivers in the end zone on consecutive plays.
■ The problem with the Patriots’ strategy was that the defensive line and “front six” was pretty atrocious at getting off blocks. Joe Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga, and Chris Jones were manhandled by Broncos guards Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez and center Manny Ramirez. The Broncos rushed for 201 yards on a whopping 6.1 average between the two guards.
■ Alfonzo Dennard tried to play on his surgically repaired knee but lasted only 22 snaps before being pulled in the second half. Dont’a Hightower was brutal in the first half — he way overran the Broncos’ 21-yard screen pass on third and 20, and didn’t make much effort on Jacob Tamme’s touchdown — and was replaced by Dane Fletcher in the second half, who was much more disciplined and had a crucial forced fumble in the third quarter. Rookie Jamie Collins had by far his most active game as a pro, finishing with 10 tackles and saving the day by knocking the ball out of Wes Welker’s hands in overtime. And Brandon Spikes had another great tackling day in the run game, finishing with nine and a fumble recovery.
■ Great job by Logan Ryan to jam Eric Decker at the line of scrimmage and then undercut him for the interception in the third quarter. And Aqib Talib would’ve intercepted Manning even if he didn’t commit defensive holding. Manning rushed the throw and didn’t put enough behind it.
■ How significant was the wind? All six kickoffs with the wind went for touchbacks. But against the wind, only one of seven went for a touchback, and the other six landed on the 8-yard line, by average.
■ Unheralded play: Michael Buchanan recovering the fumble on Julian Edelman’s punt early in the second quarter. Denver was already up, 17-0, and could have gotten the ball back inside New England’s 20 and put the game away.
■ Another banner game for Matthew Slater, who had two open-field tackles and was responsible for Trindon Holliday’s muffed punt at the end of the first half.
■ Quarterback Tom Brady: At one point completed 18 of 21 passes for three touchdowns in the second half.
■ Left guard Logan Mankins: Opened up several big holes, and kept Brady clean.
■ Tight end Rob Gronkowski: New England has scored touchdowns on 16 of 22 red zone attempts since he returned.
■ Linebacker Jamie Collins: Active in the run and pass game, just as envisioned when the Patriots took him in the second round.
■ Defensive end Chandler Jones: Six tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, and several key tackles in the run game.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin