DENVER — The man on the podium certainly looked like Bill Belichick, and had that monotonous delivery that we know all too well. But this was a Belichick we rarely see on Sundays:
Defeated. Humbled. Introspective.
Usually it’s Peyton Manning sounding this way following a date with the Patriots, but this time he did the humbling, leaving Belichick downtrodden and depressed as he explained how he didn’t prepare his team well enough before their 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
We don’t often hear Belichick admit mistakes and accept blame for defeat. Sunday, he opened up, more than a little bit.
“I wish we could’ve done a little bit better job today — especially me,” said Belichick, who choked up slightly over his words. “There’s a lot of things I don’t feel great about. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise. But it’s in the books, can’t do anything about it except look back on it, learn from it and move on.”
Belichick has crafted a Hall of Fame career out of being better prepared than the other coach, for having a new wrinkle in his game plan each week and for making in-game adjustments better than his opponents.
But Belichick didn’t have any answers on Sunday. There was no exotic game plan following eight days of preparation, or unique personnel groupings to help slow down the Broncos’ all-star cast of receivers. He lost another key player early in the game in cornerback Aqib Talib, and didn’t have a good backup plan.
The result was both Manning’s finest performance in 15 career matchups against Belichick, and one of the worst defensive performances by a Belichick defense in his three decades of coaching that side of the ball.
Manning threw for exactly 400 yards, the first time he has ever reached that number against Belichick, while the Broncos gained 507 yards, the most against the Patriots since Belichick arrived as head coach in 2000. As a defensive coach, he hadn’t allowed this many yards since Week 1 in 1998, when he was the Jets’ defensive coordinator.
The Broncos held the ball for 35:44 as the Patriots forced zero turnovers. The Broncos converted 7 of their first 10 third-down opportunities, punted once and scored on six straight possessions. Even more notably, the Pats didn’t so much as lay a finger on Manning, sacking him zero times and hitting him zero times.
In short, Belichick and the Patriots’ defense had nothing on Sunday. Manning, meanwhile, seemed like he had all the answers before the test.
“They did a good job mixing the plays, and as always he did an excellent job of reading the defenses,” Belichick said. “He got us in some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play-calling and recognition. We disguised and I think we got him a few times, but he certainly got us a few times, too.”
Usually that postgame quote is about Belichick, not from him. But Manning won the mental game this time, consistently getting his offense into the right play and his receivers into the right spot.
Manning’s passing numbers will be the focus of discussion on Monday, but his finest play was probably when he checked into a draw play on third and 10 in the second quarter. Want to leave the middle of the field wide open on such a crucial play? Manning gladly handed the ball off the Knowshon Moreno, who scampered 28 yards up the middle to the 11-yard line, and four plays later Denver found the end zone for a 10-0 lead.
Of course, Manning deserves the bulk of credit for Sunday’s game. He threw for 400 yards, but the majority of his passes were quick reads and short throws to negate the Patriots’ pass rush.
“The ball is coming out very fast. It’s not like he’s holding onto the ball,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “They could not block you, and they’re still going to get the ball off.”
And credit Manning for learning his lesson from the first matchup this season, which the Patriots won, 34-31, in overtime at home in Week 12.
On Sunday, after starting out in mostly press-man coverage, the Patriots switched primarily to zone, perhaps as a response to Talib, their top cornerback, leaving the game with a knee injury.
That left the middle of the field wide open, and Demaryius Thomas (seven catches for 134 yards), Julius Thomas (eight catches for 85 yards) and Eric Decker (five catches for 73 yards) picked the Patriots apart with a cadre of crossing routes.
“New England has a physical secondary. If you’re running all straight and vertical down the field — you know, intermediate routes — that’s tough,” Manning said. “You have to have some of that, but also crossing routes. That’s what we learned, and that’s what some of our notes were coming out of the first time we played them.”
Even before Sunday’s win, Manning had proven to be on the short list of the NFL’s greatest all-time players. Sunday, he proved he’s still at the top of his game at 37, even if his arm strength and creaky neck aren’t.
And Belichick proved Sunday that he’s human, after all. No, he can’t slow down “probably the best offense in NFL history,” as Tom Brady put it, without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly and Brandon Spikes and Talib. No, he couldn’t coax this injured and flawed team to a sixth Super Bowl appearance.
Belichick almost seemed to be asking for forgiveness from a fan base that expects him to be the biggest genius on the field at all times.
“I’ll say this — whatever mistakes were made in that game, by me and everybody else, I think were all made with the intention of doing what was best,” Belichick pleaded. “It didn’t always work, but the effort and the intent to do the right thing, I definitely felt like that was there.”
Ninkovich said his coach was being too hard on himself.
“At the end of the day, the players are out there, and they have to execute,” Ninkovich said. “Coaches, they can only help you so much. Then you have to go out there, you’ve got to beat your man or you’ve got to cover him or you’ve got to make a play. That’s just how football works.”
Belichick, though, sounded like he won’t get over this loss any time soon.
“Lose a game like that, you certainly think there were things you could’ve done better,” he said. “I can’t imagine not feeling that way.”
Two of the Broncos’ biggest receiving weapons — wideout Demaryius Thomas (6-3) and tight end Julius Thomas (6-5) — gave the Patriots defense big problems. The duo was targeted on 21 of Peyton Manning’s 43 pass attempts, and accounted for nine first downs among their 15 receptions, with an average of 14.6 yards per catch. A breakdown of the passes thrown their way, with the closest Patriot in coverage:
|Target No.||Julius Thomas||Demaryius Thomas|
|1||5 yards (Dont’a Hightower)||29 yards, first down (Devin McCourty)|
|2||6 yards (Kyle Arrington)||Incomplete|
|3||Incomplete||26 yards, first down (Steve Gregory)|
|4||3 yards (Arrington)||37 yards, first down (McCourty)|
|5||5 yards, first down (McCourty)||15 yards, first down (Arrington)|
|6||Incomplete||4 yards (Alfonzo Dennard)|
|7||14 yards, first down (Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan)||3 yards, touchdown (Dennard)|
|8||14 yards, first down (McCourty)||19 yards, first down (Gregory)|
|9||1 yard (Hightower)||Incomplete|
|11||37 yards, first down (Collins)|