It’s easy to read too deeply into a game like the one we saw on Sunday night. Manning vs Brady always comes with its fair share of overreactions and oversimplified analysis. So let’s delve in, and examine this game from an analytical perspective instead of an emotional one.
First of all, the wind was absolutely a factor. Cold or even wet weather isn’t as big of a deal as strong winds. A quarterback needs a big arm to cut through the wind. This is something Tom Brady has. Peyton Manning, at this point in his career, does not. This will continue to be a problem for the Broncos.
Denver’s passing game is based on precision and timing. Peyton Manning’s greatness is based on the same thing. Teams that have had the most success against him throughout his career are the ones that disrupt the timing between he and his receivers. Wind has that same effect.
Knowing the weather conditions, Bill Belichick set out to make Manning beat him with tough throws into tight windows. The Patriots played lots of press-man, not allowing Manning to get comfortable with easy completions underneath. He was going to have to work for everything he’d get through the air.
The tradeoff was 6-man box after 6-man box. If you were wondering why the Broncos kept attacking on the ground it was for this exact reason. Knowshon Moreno had a career night as the Patriots were unable to stop the run. Defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones were blown off the ball consistently, showing everyone just how badly the Pats miss Vince Wilfork. It’s tough to fault Denver for this approach when they finished the night with 280 yards rushing (5.8 yards per rush).
Where the Broncos should be second-guessing their approach is during that disastrous 3rd quarter. Here, with the wind to their backs and the Patriots mounting a comeback, Denver continued to play it safe. This was the time to put a drive together that would quell any sort of Patriots momentum. This was the time to put the ball in Peyton Manning’s hands and have him get the ball to Demaryius Thomas. Instead, Denver remained passive with their run-first approach. When they did throw the ball, Manning was looking to get it out of his hands early and underneath. He really made no attempt to push the ball downfield at all until after the Broncos were trailing. The results were predictable.
To his credit, Manning did make some big throws in the 4th quarter and overtime (outside of his terrible interception). He made a few throws into tight windows, leaving many wondering why he hadn’t been doing so all game. On those particular plays, Manning was able to get his entire body into his throws, which at this stage in his career and coming off his neck injury, is absolutely vital for him to drive the ball downfield.
The absence of dynamic tight end, Julius Thomas, definitely hurt the Broncos. This was a game built for tight ends and passes in the middle of the field. We need to call a spade a spade, though. Manning’s lack of arm strength in windy conditions has to be a big concern for the Broncos. Peyton missed Demaryius Thomas on a few passes to the outside, underthrowing him as the ball got caught up in the wind. Other teams will watch this tape, and if they face the Broncos in these conditions again, you likely won’t see them use 6-man boxes as often. They’ll challenge Manning to make throws to the outside, because this passing game is not nearly as dangerous in adverse weather conditions.
On the other side of the ball, it was a tale of two halves. The Patriots fumbled on each of their first 3 drives, leading to 17 Broncos points. Denver played aggressively, mixing in man press coverage, line stunts, and a few blitzes. They weren’t overly aggressive, but they didn’t allow New England to settle into the game. They used the alignment of their D-line to get Von Miller one-on-one matchups with left tackle Nate Solder. This led to 2 first-half sacks and a collapsing pocket around Brady.
So what changed? For one, the injury to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at the end of the first half hurt the Broncos badly. Rodgers-Cromartie is Denver’s best cover corner and his absence brought Quentin Jammer and rookie Kayvon Webster onto the field in the 2nd half much more than they generally are. Tom Brady took advantage.
On their first drive of the 2nd half, New England used several man-beater routes – short crosses as well as picks and rubs (Julian Edelman literally blocked Rob Gronkowski’s man on a wheel route down the sideline that led to a big completion and it wasn’t flagged). Webster had lots of trouble fighting through these rubs, and the result was an easy and methodical Brady touchdown drive.
Montee Ball’s fumble on the next drive was a critical mistake. However, it wasn’t as critical as Jack Del Rio’s decision to start playing more soft zone coverage. This gave Brady the ability to get rid of the ball quickly for easy completions, and it negated Denver’s pass rush. Brady took what the Broncos gave him. He also zipped some great passes into tight windows when necessary, the ball cutting through the wind during his red hot 3rd quarter.
Remember that first half where Denver was finding ways to isolate Miller on Nate Solder? That was gone at this point of the 3rd quarter. Instead, Jack Del Rio had Von Miller drop into coverage repeatedly during this stretch. The decision to not allow your best pass rusher to get after the quarterback when he’s picking your secondary apart is questionable at best, and it was perhaps Del Rio’s worst folly of the night.
To the Broncos credit, they recovered in the 4th quarter. A short field off of a Peyton Manning interception led to another Patriots touchdown. But after that, Denver returned to their normal aggressive ways. Once the game was tied at 31, their defense stymied the Patriots from that point on. The Patriots didn’t cross midfield again until after Tony Carter touched the ball on a punt at the end of overtime and the Patriots recovered.
The Broncos are obviously kicking themselves after this game. They outplayed the Patriots and missed an opportunity to take control of the AFC. As a result, they’ll likely have to win out with New England on their heels in order to get that number-one seed they so covet.