...In our final film breakdown of the 2015 season (sadly), we'll start by saying that the New England defense, overall, played as well as anyone could have expected in such a harsh environment as Denver's Mile High. Offensively... well, there heroics at the end were a little too late.
...Loved the way the Patriots defended the run all day. The front seven, at times aided by the secondary, was aggressive and anticipated Denver's play designs very well. LB Jamie Collins' tackle-for-loss on the Broncos' opening drive exemplified this, as he read the ball carrier, shot a gap, and brought down RB Ronnie Hillman for a 1-yard loss with a smothering tackle.
...I can understand why CB Logan Ryan was called for pass interference against WR Demaryius Thomas, which extended Denver's opening drive. He clearly initiated contact with Thomas far downfield before the ball got there.
...Broncos QB Peyton Manning's first TD toss to TE Owen Daniels appeared to stem from a rare miscommunication by New England's D. Collins, who eventually lined up over Daniels, and DE Rob Ninkovich looked unsure pre-snap about what each other's responsibilities were in the play. Daniels then ran a great route splitting the two defenders, who looked like they thought the other one was going to cover Daniels. He wound up wide open and made an easy pitch-and-catch reception from Manning from just outside the red zone.
...While I understood Ryan's being flagged for PI based on his actions, I was flabbergasted that Broncos safety T.J. Ward wasn't penalized for the same type of contact on a 3rd-down pass attempt to TE Rob Gronkowski. New England was forced to punt as a result, but the drive should have been continued with an automatic 1st-down. Ward covered Gronk almost exactly the way Ryan did Thomas.
...Starting C Bryan Stork lost his head when he lightly head-butted DE Vance Walker after a nice Steven Jackson run on the ensuing possession. The Patriots had great field position to start the drive, but Stork's lack of discipline cost his team 15 yards. Can't let your emotions get to you in games as big as this, even though it was a relatively harmless retaliation after the play was whistled dead.
...Brady's first of four sacks was a direct result of RT Marcus Cannon being beaten by DE Derek Wolfe and then being too slow to recover. Wolfe used a speed-and-power rush to get deep into the backfield, causing Brady to step up in the pocket. Wolfe got past Cannon and wheeled around to pursue Brady from behind. Cannon lumbered after Wolfe, but the defender was just too quick. Brady didn't feel the pressure coming and was brought down easily. NE punted again.
...Great job by LB Jonathan Freeny not to give up on what was initially ruled an incomplete pass by Manning to Hillman coming out of the backfield. My initial reaction when I saw it live was that it was a lateral pass, at the very least, and possibly a backward one, either of which would be considered a fumble. Freeny instinctively picked up the ball and ran to the end zone. Head coach Bill Belichick smartly challenged the call, which was reviewed and overturned. The Freeny scoop-and-score didn't stand because the play was whistled dead, but his recovery of the fumble was valid.
...Two plays later, Jackson punched it in for the Patriots, thanks in part to a great lead-block by backup rookie center David Andrews, who'd lined up as Jackson's fullback. Jackson did the rest with a powerful, decisive short-yardage run, bouncing off bodies in the process. Despite limited touches in his month-plus with the Patriots, Jackson looked like he could have helped this offense had the o-line been better at run-blocking for him.
...Looked to me like K Stephen Gostkowski's missed PAT was a result of his misplacing his plant foot. He planted too far forward, only by a small margin, but still significant enough to alter his follow-through as he struck the ball. Planting too far forward causes the push to the right, for a right-footed kicker like him. It was his first missed extra point sine his rookie season in 2006. Unfortunate time for him to miss, but the Pro Bowler came up with some big field goals later in the game.
...Brady's first INT was an excellent example of OLB Von Miller baiting the QB into throwing to what he thought was a wide-open Gronk. Miller initially looked like he was fooled by Gronkowski's route to the inside, but when Gronk turned outside, Miller was ready for it and spun around. Miller was now directly in the path of Brady's pass and nearly dropped it. But Miller made a fantastic fingertip grab in the Patriots' red zone.
...Following that miscue, another textbook execution of technique led to Manning's second TD throw to Daniels. Lined up wide right, Daniels was again matched up with Collins. At the snap, Daniels stutter-stepped to the outside, with Collins matching him step-for-step. Daniels then put a perfect stop-and-go move on Collins, which turned the linebacker completely around, thinking Daniels was cutting back inside. This brief hesitation and reaction gave Daniels the necessary space for Manning to float a pass to him in the corner of the end zone.
...For the second time in the half, Brady was sacked on a 3rd down. This was from the Denver 22, and he faced pressure from three sides. Both of his tackles were overwhelmed by speed moves: Cannon by Miller and LT Sebastian Vollmer by Wolfe. While those pincers were collapsing on him, his left guard, Josh Kline, was being bull-rushed backward by Walker. So, when Brady tried to elude the pressure from his left and right by stepping up, he ran into the back of Kline and the two edge rushers combined to take him down. Gostkowski had to come in and boot a 46-yarder.
...As bad as he was on the two Daniels TDs, Collins was an otherwise uncontrollable force with whom Denver had to reckon all afternoon. His brilliant pass rush on Manning on the ensuing drive's third down forced a three-and-out punt. I expected Collins, who didn't play in the November matchup in Denver, to be a factor for New England, and he sure was, mostly in a positive way.
...Brady was getting heat in his face again when he threw his second INT of the day. On 3rd-and-5 from near midfield, DE Malik Jackson drove Kline to the inside before darting to the outside, around Vollmer, who had worked Wolfe into the middle of the pocket. Jackson sprinted toward Brady, forcing the QB to throw off his back foot and sooner than he'd probably planned. This led to a badly underthrown ball that Denver safety Darian Stewart downfield.
...DT Alan Branch got to Manning on the ensuing possession. Manning play-actioned from under center and when we wheeled back around, he had LB Dont'a Hightower almost in his face. Manning side-stepped the oncoming 'backer, but when he did, he found Branch bearing down on him. Branch got there by muscling past a flailing center Matt Paradis.
...Manning was sacked again early in the second half. It was Collins again with the pressure, this time coming on a disguised blitz up the middle. This forced Manning to pivot backward to try to escape, but he was running into the on-coming Malcom Brown, so Manning gave himself up at around his own 5-yard line.
...After a long catch-and-run, Gronkowski took himself out of the game, apparently due to cramping and/or dehydration. He spent the remainder of the drive, which ended in a field goal, consuming unusually large amounts of water on the sideline. He also donned an oxygen mask later and was having his leg muscles massaged. The treatment worked well enough to get him back on the field eventually.
...The third Brady sack came deep in Patriots territory. Backup tackle Cameron Fleming was in the game as an extra blocker on the right side, where he faced a 1-on-1 matchup with Miller. The OLB timed his jump almost precisely with Stork's shotgun snap, which gave him a split-second head-start on Fleming. The young tackle never recovered. Miller just ran right around him, and Fleming barely got his hands on the defender. Brady, looking to his left for a receiver, didn't see Miller coming until he was beset by the Bronco. Far too easy a sack to surrender.
...A third Manning sack was Collins' doing again. This time, he came on a conventional blitz up the middle and was unblocked. Manning was under center, play-actioned, and when he turned back to the line of scrimmage, Collins was only three yards away and closing fast. Manning tried to flee, but realized it was futile and gave himself up again.
...Sack no. 4 for Brady came on yet another 3rd down. Denver sent six blitzers on 3rd-and-10 from the NE 28, three of whom managed to get at Brady. Cannon, Vollmer, and Kline were again the guilty parties who allowed their defenders to beat them with speed/power combinations. Just a terrible outing all day for the o-line as a whole, and a few players in particular.
...One of the most controversial play-calls of the day for New England came with a little more than six minutes to play. The Patriots faced 4th-and-1 from the Denver 16, trailing 20-12. New England needed two scores to tie (a TD plus a 2-point conversion). With that in mind, and with the defense playing so effectively against Manning's offense, the logical choice would have been to kick the 34-yard field goal from this spot, cut the lead to five points if the kick is good (high probability of that), and trust your defense to get you the ball back with enough time and time-outs to try for the end zone. So, what does New England do? Roll the dice and go for it. The trick play that OC Josh McDaniels called nearly worked, too, but for a tremendous recognition of what was happening by CB Chris Harris Jr. The Patriots had Danny Amendola in the slot left, with Julian Edelman motioning from the left to the right edge of the formation. Keshawn Martin was the left flanker, with Jackson in the backfield and Brady under center. Brady play-actioned to Jackson to the left side as Edelman came back across the formation in the backfield right behind the o-line. Amendola ran a shallow cross, with Harris guarding him. CB Aqib Talib was responsible for Edelman in the man-coverage, and when Harris noticed Talib running toward him, he spotted Edelman breaking free to that left side. Edelman made the catch after Brady floated the ball over the head of on-rushing OLB DeMarcus Ware and would have had at least a first down, if not more, were it not for Harris staying put and not pursuing Amendola. Harris was in the right spot at the right time to bring Edelman down short of the first-down marker. To me, this was the most consequential play of the game.
...Gronkowski was a monster at the end of this quarter. He made some tremendous catches at crucial times, notably his two fourth-down grabs, and did so at clearly less than full strength. After scoring the game's final touchdown, Gronk found himself wide open in the back, right corner of the end zone on the 2-point conversion attempt, but Brady never looked his way. Instead, Brady focused on Edelman, who was double-covered at the goal line. Poor decision by the quarterback. Regardless, still one of the best performances I've ever seen out of Gronkowski. Truly the best tight end I've ever seen.
...New England's offense really liked the matchup of RB James White against Denver's linebackers. So much so that Brady targeted White 16 times, more than any other Patriots pass catcher Sunday. White only caught five of those throws, however. Timing was just slightly off on most of the 11 misfires.
...Brady didn't have his best day throwing the football. Many of his passes were more off-the-mark than we're used to seeing from him, even when he wasn't being pressured and had time to throw. Disappointing way to end what started off looking like another magical season for New England. On to 2016...