Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots Ten In-Depth Observations

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Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) celebrates after he catches a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in the second half of the 2013 AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos are going to the Super Bowl after disposing of the New England Patriots 26-16, and the Broncos thoroughly dominated the Patriots despite injuries of their own. With Tom Brady at the helm, you always got the chance that the Patriots were still in it, and he managed to cobble together two touchdown drives to help avoid a blowout. That said, the slow start from Brady and the offense helped do the Patriots in, but I have to say that the Patriots defense gets the blame for this loss. Aqib Talib‘s injury was a huge blow and was a deja vu moment from last year’s AFCCG loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but the fact of the matter is that he was getting beat (just not as badly as Alfonzo Dennard) by Demaryius Thomas as well. The Patriots did an incredible job of getting to this point despite all the injuries they suffered, and huge credit goes to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Devin McCourty for being the three leaders of the charge. But at the end of the day, the Broncos were the more talented team, and I think we can all point to Rob Gronkowski‘s ACL and MCL tears as the regular season injury that finally did the Patriots in.

1. I hate mainstream-media based narratives that fans who aren’t smart enough to think for themselves gobble up straight from the TV, and then the rest of us have to try and shoot down those narratives. You know, the ones that say, “Peyton Manning is a choker”, “Tom Brady can’t win the big game anymore”, or “My favorite team must sign old, washed-up player because of name value”.

With that in mind, it was great to see Peyton Manning destroy that narrative by putting up 400 passing yards and averaging 9.3 yards per attempt (monster numbers, of course) against a Patriots defense that seemed to forgot how to play defense. I honestly think that only two players legitimately played well: Devin McCourty (as he has all year) and Jamie Collins (he’s so good that Brandon Spikes is now an afterthought). And you can’t carry an entire defense with two players.

As for another narrative, you’re going to hear people saying that Tom Brady “sucked” (check ESPN’s Mike Greenberg’s tweets, because they are a travesty) in yesterday’s game and try and spin things against him, but the truth is that this game wasn’t even about Brady vs. Manning. Beyond that, Brady actually played well despite a slow start in the first half. His protection was spotty at best, he had no running game to help him out, and his second and third best wide receivers didn’t show up to play. Manning? His line was perfect (actually, that has more to do with the Patriots putrid pass rush), and his wide receivers definitely came up big against an overmatched Patriots defense.

2. One key difference that was underrated when comparing the Broncos and Patriots last meeting to yesterday’s meeting was the tight end position. Not only did the Patriots not have Gronkowski, but the Broncos had Julius Thomas, who is such a huge weapon for the Broncos. So much of Manning’s legendary game is predicated upon pre-snap audibles and getting mis-matches, and there’s no better way to get mis-matches than to isolated an uber-athletic TE on a linebacker. The only person who could cover Thomas one-on-one on the Patriots was McCourty, who was forced to play more deep coverage once Talib left and the likes of Dennard started getting burned badly. That led to more of Thomas on linebackers, and not even Collins could hang with him. When Thomas was covered by Dont’a Hightower? Forget it, that was a big play waiting to happen. Quick note, though, Hightower did play some excellent run defense and showed great instincts to have a four-yard loss early in the game.

See, not only is Thomas extremely skilled (Gronk obviously is, too), but it’s the way that a versatile, pass-catching TE changes your gameplan, playcalls, and scheme that can really impact the game. Manning knows this, and that’s why he and Thomas connected for eight receptions and 85 yards.

3. Coming into this game, New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola was good in key situations, so much so that he had the eighth-highest WPA in the league at wide receiver, per Advanced NFL Stats. With the 25th-best EPA, that represents a significant difference and shows some sort of “clutchness” from Amendola. However, he was anything but clutch yesterday, and he dropped the only target (I’m not counting the catch that was called back) thrown at him. You read the right, and it was a terrible drop that hit him with both hands, and he was the opposite of reliable for more than just that drop. He was anonymous, and he was horrible. I don’t want to make this about Wes Welker vs. Danny Amendola, but it’s alarming that Welker is despised by some Patriots fans for his drops, when he never played this poorly in a key game. Oh well, at least Austin Collie stepped up.

4. Peyton Manning gets the game ball, but I think Demaryius Thomas also merits serious consideration. I mean, it was almost ridiculous just how badly he was beating everyone he faced on the Patriots defense. It didn’t matter if Thomas was being covered by Dennard or Ryan or had safety help from McCourty, because he used an arsenal of savvy route-running and straight up size, speed, and athleticism to dominate. Thomas finished with seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown, and his three-yard TD catch shows just how well he uses his size and how good he is at beating CBs right off the snap with double moves.

5. I hear some people in comment sections saying that this loss is on the Patriots offense instead of the Patriots defense, and I think that this is pure hogwash. They’ll point to the 26-16 scoreline, but the fact of the matter is that the defense was on the field for 35 minutes. While they did make some key red zone and third-down stops, they were simply overrun by Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense. They put a clinic on how to not cover star pass-catchers. Talib’s injury didn’t help, but before Talib went down both Eric Decker and Julius Thomas were putting up big days already. Overall this defense allowed an 8-14 conversion rate on third and fourth downs, so you’d be hard-pressed to staunchly defend them for making key stops. They allowed Manning to be on the field for 35:44 and throw for  a 118.4 QB Rating. Maybe worse yet, they didn’t force any turnovers and also allowed 107 yards on the ground; the defense never gave the offense a chance to get them back in the game.

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