The Patriots didn’t belong on the same field as the Broncos in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
That’s the conclusion that jumps to mind after watching the Broncos trounce the Patriots, 26-16, on the coaches’ tape, a game that was much more one-sided than the final score would suggest.
Peyton Manning was masterful in the win, there’s no doubt about that. In a stretch from the late second quarter to the early fourth quarter, Manning completed 19 of 20 passes, including 12 straight.
But this wasn’t just about Manning getting the better of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Broncos were clearly the more talented team, across the board.
Once Aqib Talib went down, undersized New England cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington were absolutely helpless to cover the Broncos’ all-star cast of receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker, who combined for 16 catches, 245 yards, and a touchdown.
Young defensive linemen Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, and Joe Vellano, who were nowhere near the top of the Patriots’ depth chart to start the season, were completely dominated by the Broncos’ interior offensive line, while Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower often looked as if they were out of gas. Jamie Collins couldn’t hang with Julius Thomas, the former basketball player who had eight catches for 85 yards.
The Patriots’ offensive line, surprisingly shaky this year, couldn’t handle the Broncos’ physical, oversized front four, including 335-pound defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, 293-pound defensive end Malik Jackson, and 274-pound end Robert Ayers.
And Brady’s receivers, which often included fullback James Develin and blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui split out wide, couldn’t create any separation until the Broncos went to a prevent defense in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots would have had to play a perfect game just to have a chance, but they were physically dominated in almost every facet of the game. There’s no question, the better team won.
A review of the game after watching the coaches’ tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Brady has struggled in recent playoff performances, and once again he was less than sharp on Sunday. He generally had good protection in the pocket, but some of his reads and decision-making were strange.
Why, on third and 3 in the first quarter, did he throw a deep fade to a tightly covered Matthew Slater (of all people) when he had Danny Amendola streaking underneath for a potential first down? Why did he throw a third-down slant to Austin Collie, also tightly covered, and not look at Hoomanawanui streaking wide open down the seam (the Rob Gronkowski special)?
Brady was 24 of 38 for 277 yards and a touchdown, but he went 12 of 17 for 155 yards and a touchdown on the final two drives of the game, when the Broncos were ahead, 23-3, and playing prevent defense.
And of course, Brady’s inaccuracy on deep balls to Julian Edelman and Collie thwarted any chance the Patriots had of being competitive.
■ The offensive woes were hardly all on Brady. The only way Edelman, Amendola, Collie, Aaron Dobson, and Hoomanawanui could create separation was through trickery. The Patriots were liberal with play-action, using it 12 times on 41 dropbacks, with five completions for 86 yards.
On one fake, the Patriots ran a one-man route with Edelman and kept nine players in to block (Brady’s pass was incomplete).
Dobson also showed tremendous route-running on his 27-yard catch, sprinting upfield and stopping on a dime for the catch. And Shane Vereen caught five screens and swing passes out of the backfield for 59 yards. But on straight dropback passes, Brady’s receivers couldn’t get open, and the offense stalled.
The Broncos played two-deep safeties for most of the game and alternated between zone and man coverage. The speed exhibited by linebacker Danny Trevathan in pass coverage was impressive, particularly in cutting down Edelman for a 1-yard gain before he could turn the corner.
■ The offensive line protected Brady fairly well — the Broncos blitzed Brady just five times on 41 passing plays — although Nate Solder and Logan Mankins picked horrible times to whiff on their blocks. But the run blocking was completely dominated by the Broncos, who often brought an extra defender into the box, even on obvious passing downs.
Center Ryan Wendell had a horrible time with Knighton, Dan Connolly consistently was overpowered by Sylvester Williams, and Marcus Cannon was handled several times by Ayers.
LeGarrette Blount had only five carries for 6 yards and didn’t play a snap in the second half, as the Patriots turned to Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
When the Broncos had the ball
■ Manning was masterful. Not only did he consistently check the Broncos into the right play — their use of the inside handoff out of the shotgun was devastating in the second and third quarters — but he proved that he still can zip the ball into tight windows when necessary.
Dennard’s coverage on Demaryius Thomas wasn’t all that bad, but Thomas, at 6 feet 3 inches and 229 pounds, made some impossible catches on fade routes because of his physical dominance.
Manning also noticed that the Patriots’ two deep safeties were taking several steps back after the snap, and when the Patriots left the middle of the field open, he checked into a perfect draw play, which Knowshon Moreno broke for a 28-yard run.
The Patriots maybe would have had a chance to slow down Denver if Talib had stayed in the game to line up on Thomas one-on-one, allowing Dennard to take Decker, Arrington to cover Welker, and Jamie Collins and Devin McCourty to double-team Julius Thomas. But Talib’s injury was too much to overcome.
The best way to slow down Manning is to jam his receivers and disrupt their timing, but the cornerbacks barely could lay a finger on the Broncos receivers. They opened the game in two-deep man coverage but played a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 4 after Talib went down, and Manning patiently tore them apart underneath.
■ The Broncos used criss-crossing receivers throughout the game, and created easy separation when the Patriots were in man coverage. When the Patriots played zone, Manning attacked the flats, the deep middle, and deep corner. His reads were flawless.
■ Welker’s hit on Talib probably should’ve been flagged for offensive pass interference but didn’t look intentional. The two appeared to accidentally run into the same path, and Welker seemed to lower his shoulder to protect himself at the last minute. And it’s hard to blame Welker: He was absolutely leveled by Hightower when running across the middle early in the first quarter.
■ The Patriots’ tackling was pretty atrocious. Chandler Jones and Collins both whiffed badly in the backfield. Steve Gregory and Duron Harmon both whiffed on Moreno’s 28-yard gain, which should have been 8 or 10 yards. And Ryan gave Julius Thomas the matador treatment in the fourth quarter.
■ The Patriots blitzed only eight times on 43 passing plays: five five-man rushes and three six-man rushes. They also rushed just three defenders six times. But no matter what they did, they couldn’t get in Manning’s face or slow down Demaryius Thomas.
■ Vellano, Chris Jones, and Siliga were manhandled by Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, and Louis Vasquez. They didn’t get any penetration and were pushed around all day. And yes, that was Broncos tight end Virgil Green rumbling for 6 yards on a handoff.
■ Pretty uneventful game in all phases. All seven Denver kickoffs went for touchbacks, as did two of three New England kickoffs.
Ryan Allen allowed zero return yards on three punts (two downed and a fair catch), and did a nice job of handling a low snap on his first attempt. Denver’s Britton Colquitt punted just once, a touchback.
■ Belichick probably should have attempted a 57-yard field goal in the thin air instead of punting in the second quarter. And he probably should have tried a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter when trailing, 20-3, instead of going for it.
■ WR Julian Edelman: Pretty much the only offensive player to show up, with 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.
■ LB Dont’a Hightower: Actually had a solid game, with eight tackles (one for loss) and several nice plays in the run game.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin