FOXBOROUGH — Now everything changes.
Before Sunday, the Patriots were suspect. Sure, they were 6-2, resting in their comfy spot atop the suddenly competitive Warhol, but we were waiting for a victory that would make them legit. Crushing the mail-it-in-Bears at Gillette Stadium did not do the trick. Ditto for a win over the ever-ordinary Bills in Orchard Park. Beating the Bengals seemed like a big deal at the time, but that was before Marvin Lewis and his players again demonstrated their limitations.
And so we gathered at the Razor on a blustery Sunday in November and wondered if this would be the day the Patriots would make a statement.
And they did.
New England 43, Denver 21. It was Tom Brady over Peyton Manning, Julian Edelman over Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski over T.J. Ward . . . and Bill Belichick over Grady Fox . . . and Harvey Leonard.
It’s hard to believe now that as recently as Sept. 29 we had Trent Dilfer declaring that the Patriots are “not good anymore,’’ and there was some local conversation about maybe trading Brady, who appeared to be in “serious decline.’’ We groused about New England’s swiss cheesy offensive line and the arrogant trading of Logan Mankins.
Now the Patriots are kings of New England again and the message has been delivered that the road to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., will snake down Route 1 between Walpole and Wrentham (home of cult hero Scott Zolak).
Admittedly, the thrashing of the Broncos was achieved at comfy Gillette and the next part of the Patriots schedule features games that will test New England’s strength and depth. But Sunday’s exposure of the Broncos aligns the planets perfectly for a typical Patriots playoff run. Going into their bye week the Patriots are the top seed in the AFC and they own the tie-breaker if they again should draw the Broncos in the conference championship. Sunday’s beatdown demonstrates that Manning and Denver simply cannot win here.
Sorry, Broncos. You had your chance. This was the year when the Patriots were vulnerable. Denver “loaded up,’’ during the offseason, spending money and acquiring big-name players. The Broncos were “all in.’’ They were a Big Orange Machine, shedding everything in their path as they thundered into Foxborough. Manning already had broken the record for career touchdown passes and was taking his brand to a new level at the age of 38.
Now go Cut That Meat, Mr. Chicken Parm You Taste So Good.
Belichick is Peyton’s Kryptonite. Manning is one player against the rest of the NFL and quite another against the Patriots. Belichick-Brady teams have beaten Manning’s teams 11 times in 16 meetings. And it’s especially bad for Manning in Foxborough. Manning finished with 34 completions in 57 attempts for a whopping 438 yards with two TDs and two interceptions, but it was a garbage-time line. Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 scored 62 points in a 145-136 loss to the Celtics in which Boston led by 31 points in the fourth — that’s what this felt like.
Meanwhile, Brady was 33 for 53 for 333 yards with 4 TDs and one pick.
In the first half, when it mattered, Manning converted only 1 of 4 third-down opportunities (the Broncos were 3 for 15 overall on third- and fourth-down conversions). In Denver’s first four possessions, the Broncos had two three-and-outs (aggregate negative yardage) and Manning was intercepted once. New England’s beefed-up secondary dismantled Denver’s vaunted “weapons” as the Patriots built a 27-7 halftime lead.
When it was 43-21 with 8½ minutes left in the fourth, Patriots fans chanted, “Brady’s better.’’
There was no argument from the Broncos sideline. And there was no dispute on the wise-guy NFL postgame roundtables. Manning and the Broncos had been thrashed again in Foxborough. Their doubts cannot be erased until they win a big game here, and if form holds the AFC Championship game will be played in Foxborough once again this year.