From the get-go, the Broncos controlled this game. Peyton Manning had an unbelievable day – 32-43, 400 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT. More importantly, he got help from his teammates. His receivers held onto balls they dropped the week before against the Chargers. The running game picked up consistent yards on the ground. And the defense dominated until Denver had a 20-point lead. But this wasn’t a game where gimmicks or unique gameplans determined the winner. These two teams lined up toe-to-toe, and the Broncos just executed better than the Patriots did.
There is no question that Aqib Talib’s injury had an affect on this game. No, the Patriots wouldn’t have won had he been able to stay on the field. The Broncos were executing at too high of a level, and New England wasn’t able to hang with them on the other side of the ball. However, Talib’s absence from the game did alter New England’s approach.
First off, Alfonzo Dennard was forced to line up on Demaryius Thomas once Talib exited the game. When New England went with man coverage, Peyton took advantage of this matchup time and time again.
Secondly, with Talib out the Patriots played more zone coverage than they normally do. They were static as a defense. Bill Belichick is known for throwing wrinkles at opposing teams when they least expect it. However, in this game, there wasn’t much disguise at all. They didn’t force the issue on defense. By and large they were passive, which is uncharacteristic of a Bill Belichick-coached defense.
Still, Peyton Manning was brilliant both pre and post snap. He was extremely accurate. And even on those throws where he didn’t have great ball placement, his receivers came down with one contested catch after another, catches they failed to make a week earlier.
The Patriots fought an uphill battle all day. When Manning wasn’t carving up New England’s secondary, he was taking advantage of the 5 and 6-man boxes the Patriots showed him when they were concerned with taking away the pass. On one of the biggest plays of the game, a 3rd and 10 from the Patriots 39 in the 2nd quarter, Manning saw 5 men in the box and no one in the middle of the field:
He changed the play to a run, resulting in a 28-yard pick-up, and eventually, a 10-0 lead. This is how the Broncos have operated on the ground all season. They aren’t an overly physical group that dominates the line of scrimmage. Instead, the running game is predicated on facing advantageous defensive fronts to run against.
Furthermore, Denver used some unconventional alignments to get their biggest playmakers in good positions. Demaryius Thomas operated in the middle of the field often, aligning in the slot several times with success.
Tight end Julius Thomas was occasionally left alone on the perimeter to wreak havoc. On one play, he was covered by a safety much smaller than him, Devin McCourty. Here, he ran an in-route, using his big body to shield off the smaller McCourty for a completion. Later in the game, Thomas was aligned on the outside, this time against athletic linebacker Jamie Collins. Instead of using his big body, Thomas used his athleticism to blow by Collins. The result was a 37-yard gain.
The Broncos attacked all afternoon using every aspect of their offense. The Patriots didn’t generate any type of pass rush. Part of this was Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball so quickly. But even when he did have to hang onto the ball, the Patriots couldn’t get to him. New England was unable to disrupt the Broncos offense in any way. The result was the worst defensive performance ever (yardage-wise) by a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team.
The other side of the ball wasn’t pretty for the Patriots either. Once again, it came down to execution. Denver came into the game knowing they had to stop New England’s ground game. LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots had dominated their previous two opponents. This was an offense that had evolved into a power running team since Rob Gronkowski’s injury. Clearly, they got away from this against the Broncos. The question is, why?
Simply put, the Broncos’ front-7 was exceptional against the Patriots’ rushing attack. Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton clogged up running lanes. Not only did he take on double teams and maintain his ground, he also used a couple of swim moves to get by his blocker and disrupt the play behind the line of scrimmage.
Shaun Phillips, Danny Trevathan, and Paris Lenon also held their own vs the run. Phillips did a great job of setting the edge on runs to his side, while also crashing inside on runs away from him to cut down New England ball carriers from behind.
Lenon and Trevathan attacked the line of scrimmage when they recognized run. This clogged running lanes and didn’t give Patriots blockers the chance to get up on them at the second level.
The Patriots’ passing game did have its opportunities. New England tried stretching the field early with two downfield throws. One came on a 3rd and 3 in the first quarter, when Tom Brady attempted to hit Matthew Slater on a go route in one-on-one coverage vs cornerback Tony Carter. Slater had a step on Carter to his inside. It would have taken a great throw by Brady to complete the pass in the first place. Still, his ball placement was to Slater’s outside and a bit behind him instead of inside and leading downfield. This resulted in a contested jump ball and an incompletion.
Brady’s most egregious miss came off of play action on a deep crossing route to Julian Edelman. This was one of the most critical plays of the game. At very least it would have been a huge gain. More likely, it would have been a touchdown, as safety Duke Ihenacho was late breaking on the ball from the middle of the field. But Brady overthrew Edelman, and the Pats eventually punted the ball.
Brady had two other deep throws in the game. One down the sideline vs cover-2 to Austin Collie and another on a post to Aaron Dobson in the 3rd quarter. Neither of these were wide open, but they had a chance to be completed. Each time, Brady made the wrong type of throw.
Ultimately, Brady had an uncharacteristically off day. His four long passes each missed their mark. He narrowly avoided a pick-6 when he threw a quick turn route to Shane Vereen on the outside vs cover-2. Because Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had safety help over top on this play, he tried jumping the route. It was actually a great throw by Brady that avoided the pick-6, but it was a misread at the same time, something we don’t normally see from Brady.
Brady had some other questionable moments. He led Shane Vereen over the middle of the field when Vereen correctly sat between two linebackers. Brady threw the ball as if Vereen should have kept running across the field when there was a linebacker sitting right there in his way. Later, Brady missed a wide-open touchdown to Edelman on a route over the middle. The Patriots eventually scored on this drive, but Brady did not look like himself all afternoon.
The Patriots offense was ineffective because of a lack of execution. The Broncos defense stopped the run right out of the gate. The Patriots couldn’t convert early in the game on 3rd down. Because New England’s defense couldn’t stop the Broncos on the other side of the ball, the Patriots decided they needed to abandon their power running game and throw the ball to keep up and then catch up. This left it up to an erratic Tom Brady and an undermanned receiving corps to shoulder the load, playing right into the hands of the Broncos defense. The end result was a surprisingly one-sided game.