DENVER — The Broncos watched the game film of the Patriots' playoff victory over the Chiefs nine days ago. They saw that the Chiefs only touched Tom Brady once all game, and as a result couldn't slow down the Patriots' quick-strike passing game.
"We talked about it all week. We knew it was going to be one of those quick passing games," pass rusher DeMarcus Ware said. "We said the defensive line, we have to be able to get pressure on them in all situations. It might not be a sack, but we have to let them know that our presence is there."
Brady felt the Broncos' presence in Sunday's loss, all right.
Brady emerged from the 20-18 loss in the AFC Championship game missing nice chunks of flesh on his left elbow after taking one of the worst beatings of his career. Brady was only sacked four times, but the Broncos officially hit Brady a whopping 20 times.
To put that in perspective, it was the most hits taken by any quarterback in any game this NFL season. Brady took 99 hits in his previous 17 games, an average of 5.8 per game. The most he had taken before Sunday was 12 against the Eagles last month. Brady had taken 19 hits in his last four games combined before Sunday.
"They've got some great pass rushers," Brady said. "They have interior pass rushers, they've got some outside rushers. I think you complement that with great coverage. It was just tough for us to ever get into a rhythm."
Edge rushers Von Miller (2½ sacks, four hits ) and Ware (½ sack, seven hits) did most of the damage, having their way with tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon. On the final 2-point conversion, it was Ware who got the pressure on Brady to flush him from the pocket and force a bad throw to Julian Edelman.
"They're good rushers. Ware has been doing this for a long time," said Vollmer, who was matched up against Ware. "I really don't know what to say. Credit to those guys. They have a strong defense."
The Broncos certainly do. They finished the regular season No. 1 in total defense, No. 4 in points allowed, and No. 1 with 52 sacks this year.
Ware and Miller were in Brady's face on seemingly every snap, while Derek Wolfe (four hits) and Malik Jackson (three hits) dominated the Patriots' interior offensive line.
It's cliché to say that the game was won in the trenches, but there's a reason it has become cliché — it's true. The Broncos' defensive line completely wrecked the Patriots' offense by getting Brady and his receivers off script.
And the Broncos' secondary aided the pass rush as well, jamming Edelman and Rob Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage and forcing Brady to hold onto the ball far longer than he wants to. The Patriots ran 77 plays, but gained a measly 336 yards. Brady got frazzled in the pocket and made a few panic throws, two of which were intercepted.
"There are definitely times where I had opportunities to hold the ball and didn't really have great awareness of where people were around me," Brady said. "I'll look back on all those plays."
This performance was no accident, either. The Broncos had three sacks and nine hits in their regular-season win over the Patriots in late November.
"We've got the best pass rushers in the league, and today we showed it," Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "The key to beating the Patriots is getting pressure on Tom, which we did, all day. Those short quick guys are always getting open, but not against us. We have great corners, great cover linebackers."
The Patriots didn't want to make any excuses after the game, but Vollmer was clearly hobbled by his ankle, which he sprained in Week 16. He couldn't get off the line of scrimmage quickly enough to slow down Ware, whose speed and low center of gravity around the edge made him nearly impossible to block.
"Can't blame it on his ankle," Broncos defensive tackle Antonio Smith said of Vollmer. "He just faced 94, man."
"I had a knee brace on," Ware chimed in from the next locker over.
The Patriots' offensive line never could get into a rhythm all season. The biggest blow was losing left tackle Nate Solder to a torn biceps in Week 4. It weakened Patriots at left tackle with Cannon and Vollmer filling in, and it weakened them at right tackle with Vollmer having to abandon that post.
Add in an early-season injury to Bryan Stork, mid-season injuries to Cannon and Vollmer, and having three rookies playing on the interior (Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson, David Andrews), and the offensive line just couldn't develop any consistency or rhythm.
They used an NFL-high 13 starting combinations on the offensive line this year, and it showed. Brady bailed them out of many games by getting rid of the football quickly. But they played Sunday like they had two tackles playing out of position, and a rookie (Mason) playing right guard for only the second time in his life.
"The last couple drives, those guys out there had the eye of the tiger," Smith said. "I've never seen D-Ware rush like he did the last two drives. Brady was running from him the whole time. When it came down to it, we just wanted it more."
Brady says he’s proud of how the Patriots fought
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he was proud of how the team fought all season and for the AFC Championship game, where New England lost to Denver 18-20.