When the Patriots ran:
The Patriots inability to run the ball has been an issue all season long but down the stretch it ventured into the theatre of the absurd. New England got to the point where any rushing plays were almost a waste of a down, and that was certainly the case against Denver. Steven Jackson carried four times for 8 yards, although one of those resulted in a 1-yard touchdown. James White managed only 11 yards on five attempts – this despite that all five of those plays came in passing situations where the Broncos presumably weren't expecting the run. Brandon Bolden got five carries as well and picked up 12 yards. Overall, it was ugly as the Patriots finished with 44 yards on 17 attempts (2.6-yard average). The team's leading rusher? Tom Brady, with 13 yards on three attempts, including a key 11-yard scramble for a first down on third-and-10. Brady record two of the team's three longest rushes of the postseason – obviously a sign that something was seriously wrong with the ground game.
When the Patriots passed:
As pathetic as the running game was, the woes in the passing game were far more alarming – and damaging. Brady was hit a 2015 NFL-high 20 times and sacked four times while desperately trying to find receivers against the Broncos swarming defense. That led to a 2-for-15 third-down conversion rate for the Patriots. DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe dominated the Patriots overmatched offensive line, and that led Brady to one of his worst postseason performances ever. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes, hitting only 27 of 56 attempts for 310 yards with a touchdown and two crippling interceptions. Both picks were terrible decisions on throws into coverage, the second coming as Jackson was taking Brady to the turf. The only bright spot here was the superhuman play of Rob Gronkowski, who somehow finished with eight catches for 144 yards and the touchdown. He twice caught desperation fourth-down attempts on the final drive, the first for 40 yards on fourth-and-10 and the second on fourth-and-goal from the 4. Otherwise, the Patriots receivers were rendered irrelevant. Julian Edelman (seven catches, 53 yards) and James White (five catches, 45 yards on a mind-boggling 16 targets) couldn't make any plays. The offense was suffocated for a full 60 minutes.
When the Broncos ran:
The Patriots front seven certainly did its job corralling the Broncos running game. C.J. Anderson averaged 4.5 yards on his 16 carries, but that was due to one 30-yard burst on a third-and-one in the fourth quarter. Ronnie Hillman was limited to just 16 yards on 11 carries for an average of 1.5 per attempt. As a team the Broncos finished with 99 yards on 30 carries for a 3.3-yard average. Alan Branch was a standout on the interior, and linebacker Don't'a Hightower and Jamie Collins prevented the backs from cutting back into running lanes throughout. Malcolm Butler had a huge stop on a third-and-one pitch to Anderson in Patriots territory in the third quarter. This was a far cry from the first meeting when Denver ran all over the Patriots front seven in the overtime win. This time the Broncos never got any momentum on the ground, and late in the game when the hosts tried to run out the clock the front seven simply wouldn't allow it to happen.
When the Broncos passed:
On one hand Peyton Manning and the offense did just enough to win. Manning twice find tight end Owen Daniels wide open behind Collins for touchdowns, and Denver also mounted an impressive drive for a field goal in the fourth quarter. But Manning was off target many times, particularly on a play before that final field goal when he missed an open Jordan Norwood in the end zone for what would have been a devastating touchdown. The Broncos receivers also had a tough time catching the ball, particularly Demaryius Thomas. Butler had a solid game fighting against Emmanuel Sanders. Both made some plays as Sanders finished with five catches for 62 yards, but Butler came up huge with a pass defense on Denver's final third down while trying to run out the clock. Manning finished 17 of 32 for 176 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions, but he was unable to mount much offense after the fast start as the Patriots held him to just a field in the second half.
Both sides had some strong moments in the kicking game but anytime the difference comes down to a failed two-point conversion that is forced as a result of a missed PAT it's hard to focus on much else. Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point since his rookie season in the first quarter, his first misfire in 524 attempts. That point loomed huge and ultimately was the difference. Danny Amendola had a nice 28-yard punt return in the first half and Edelman tacked on a 16-yarder to set up the offense at midfield for its final drive. Norwood also had a 16-yarder on one of his punt returns. Britton Colquitt got the better of Ryan Allen, consistently flipping field position and keeping the Patriots near their end zone. Four of Colquitt's punts were downed inside the 20. Both kickers made both of their field goals with Brandon McManus connecting on an important 52-yarder late in the first half. Both teams did some things to help the cause but the PAT was the difference.