FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick avenged scoreboard operators across the NFL by keeping Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos from using the Gillette Stadium scoreboard as planned.
The Patriots muffled Manning and the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and took much of the suspense out of Tom Brady-Manning XVI, which the Patriots won handily, 43-21, on Sunday.
Belichick and the defense he souped up in the offseason with the addition of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner forced turnovers, forced the Broncos off the field on third and fourth down, and spun the dial on defense like they were on “Wheel of Fortune.” Once again Belichick made Manning, whom Belichick called the greatest quarterback he has coached against, look like a mere mortal, not an all-time great.
Manning got his numbers — 34 of 57 for 438 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. But they were statistical empty calories. The numbers that matter most are 7-12, Manning’s career record against Belichick’s Patriots.
Denver, which came in averaging a league-best 32 points per game, scored their second-fewest points this season and trailed, 27-7, at halftime. It was a half in which the Broncos went 0 for 5 on third down and were stopped on a key fourth down. Denver finished a season-worst 3 for 11 on third down (27.2 percent) and was 0 for 4 on fourth down. Denver came into the showdown converting 46.7 percent of its third downs.
“On offense we didn’t do the things we talked about doing, and that starts with me,” said Manning. “I got to play better, that’s pretty plain and simple. The quarterback stinks, you’re not going to win many games.”
That’s what the Patriots do to Manning. They have him talking about himself like he’s Geno Smith.
The key to flummoxing Manning is the same as a good Halloween costume — disguise.
You can’t show Manning the same thing out of the same look or he’ll dissect your defense. But if you can make defensive shells look the same and run different defenses out of them, you’re in business.
The Patriots spent most of the day in single-high safety looks with Devin McCourty deep in the middle of the field, but they mixed up their coverages, toggling between zone and Cover-1 man looks.
“We just switched things up, disguised very well,” said Revis. “We just gave him different looks to not just be stale out there. If you be stale against Peyton, he’ll figure it out just like that and tear a defense apart, just like that. We just wanted to mix it up, and we did a very good job disguising across the board.”
The other aspect of the Patriots’ defensive plan was trying to make it more difficult for Manning to decipher who was rushing him.
This was the case on the key play of the game, an egregious interception that Manning threw right to defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich.
Denver led, 7-6, in the second quarter. The Patriots lined up linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins in the “A” gaps with a blitz look, with no defensive lineman lined up on or near the center. At the snap, Collins bailed and Hightower faked a blitz before dropping into coverage.
Manning noticed Hightower drop, but he didn’t see that Ninkovich had dropped from the snap of the ball and threw it right to him.
Four plays later, Brady used laser-guided precision to hit a covered Julian Edelman with a 5-yard touchdown pass to give the Patriots a 13-7 lead. They never trailed again.
“It was a zone blitz. He was in the right place at the right time. I give him credit. I give them credit,” said Manning. “I can’t make that throw. That was bad, bad football right there by me.”
After kicker Brandon McManus missed a 41-yard field goal, Denver, trailing 20-7, elected to go for it on fourth and 6 from the Patriots’ 34.
The Patriots rushed three, but Manning was sacked when New England neophyte Akeem Ayers looped around from right end on a twist and came free up the middle.
The Broncos had kept tight end Julius Thomas in to block and he should have been there to pick up Ayers, but seeing it was only a three-man rush, he checked out to become a check-down option.
Brady used that turnover on downs to pad the Patriots’ lead, hitting Shane Vereen with a 5-yard touchdown with eight seconds left in the half.
The big lead made Denver one-dimensional. Manning acknowledged the Broncos were forced to pass more than they planned.
The Patriots, who have struggled at times to stop the run this season, allowed just 43 yards on 17 carries. But Denver, which ran for 280 yards last year against the Patriots, only ran six times in the second half.
As well as the Patriots’ Manning-proofed their defense, the Broncos also just suffered from poor execution, like Manning’s second pick, which came in the third quarter with the Patriots leading, 30-14.
Both Hightower and Browner, who was mirroring Julius Thomas, bit up on a play-action fake, creating room for former Patriot Wes Welker.
Manning hit Welker in the chest, but he boxed it. The ball bounced up into the arms of Browner, who had raced back into coverage.
On the next play, Brady hit Brandon LaFell with a 10-yard slant pass for TB12’s third of four TD tosses.
The Patriots had Manning’s number in the latest War of 18-12 (their jersey numbers). In a rivalry defined by two pop culture passers, the Patriots won with team defense.
With 8:32 to go the Foxborough Faithful began chanting a refrain Manning has heard often in his career: “Brady is Better.” He was.
But it was really Belichick’s name they should have been chanting.