There will be plenty of second-guessing of Bill Belichick as the Patriots season came to an end with a stunning 20-18 loss in Denver. But the mere fact that the game was played in the Mile High City is as worthy as anything of a second guess.
The Patriots simply couldn't close out the regular season with enough wins to secure home field throughout the playoffs, and some curious decisions by the coach certainly contributed to that. There was the mortar-style onside kick that gave Philadelphia life and the choice to kick off to start overtime in the Jets loss.
Then the offense put the ball in the hands of running backs on the first 18 plays of the season-ending loss to Miami. It all added up to four losses in the Patriots final six games and as a result the AFC title game was played in Denver and not Foxborough.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots stunning end to the season.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS –The Patriots needed three late drives to finally post the touchdown that put them in position to tie the game. The first came with just over six minutes to play with the Patriots facing a fourth-and-one from the Denver 16. The Broncos blew up the play with immediate pressure from DeMarcus Ware and Tom Brady's pass to Julian Edelman wound up going for a 1-yard loss when Chris Harris was there to make the tackle. The second came on fourth-and-six from the 14 with just over two minutes left and Brady couldn't hit a double-covered Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. Had the Patriots chosen to kick a field goal on one or both possessions the outcome of the game may have changed, however the Broncos offensive philosophy certainly would have changed if it was protecting a 5-point (or 2-point lead) instead of nursing the 8-point edge. Bill Belichick was asked about his reasoning after the game and the coach answered "because of the score and situation of the game." A follow-up asked if he regretted it and Belichick's reply was simple: "No."
OUT OF THE NORM – The Patriots seemed out of sorts right from the start of the game and that showed itself at the opening coin toss. New England won the toss but Belichick opted to take the ball rather than defer to the second half. It was just the third time Belichick has chosen to defer since the rules were changed in 2008, as Belichick has often talked about the desire to keep the possibility of having consecutive possessions open in terms of finishing the first half with a score and then getting the ball to start the second half. Obviously the idea was to get off to a fast start and make the Broncos chase, but it backfired when the Patriots were forced to punt and Denver answered with a long touchdown drive to take the lead.
PRESSURE POINTS –The Patriots offensive line had lots of trouble keeping Brady comfortable in the pocket throughout the game and that fact was probably the biggest factor in the game. The official game book had him taking 20 hits, which is an astounding total for a game. He was sacked four times but the constant pressure effectively prevented Brady from ever getting into rhythm. More importantly, Denver was able to create swarming pressure almost immediately on virtually important play the offense faced. Brady was backpedaling on every fourth down he faced and miraculously avoided several sacks by somehow managing to throw it away as he was taken to the turf. The entire five-man unit, plus Cameron Fleming, was under siege and couldn't handle the Broncos front despite the fact that Denver rarely sent extra rushers. Von Miller, Ware. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson all created tremendous pressure on the pocket at various times, and ultimately that was the difference in the game.
BRONCOS HAD IT COVERED –While the pressure was the overriding factor in the game, the Broncos ability to cover behind that pass rush was just as important. Aqib Talib, Harris and Bradley Roby all covered Julian Edelman at times, and Talib was heavily involved on Gronkowski as well. The Broncos fought the receivers hard at the line and tackled exceptionally well after the catch. Only some super-human efforts by Gronkowski allowed the Patriots to get any semblance of offense. Gronkowski finished with eight catches for 144 yards but he earned every yard on every catch. The Broncos doubled the All-Pro tight end often and Edelman was rendered all but irrelevant with seven catches for just 53 yards. That's was due to the solid work of the Broncos secondary, which was forced to play the fourth quarter without starting safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward who left with injuries.
COLLINS UPS AND DOWNS –Jamie Collins had a roller coaster afternoon, struggling badly in the first half before making some big plays in the second. Early on he appeared confused when he allowed tight end Owen Danielsto run past him for an easy 21-yard touchdown on a play where Rob Ninkovich and Devin McCourty also seemed confused. Collins was beaten badly later in the half by Daniels again for a 12-yard touchdown that allowed Denver to regain control. But the linebacker was much better in the second half, putting heavy pressure on Peyton Manning, sacking him twice for minus-25 yards and he finished with eight tackles. But it was the coverage missteps that were key to allowing Denver to play with the lead throughout.
EXTRA POINTS –Of the Patriots three longest runs of the postseason, two of them belong to Brady. He had a 10-yard run against Kansas City and added an 11-yarder in Denver. Edelman's 11-yarder against the Chiefs was the other. … Brady tossed two first-half interceptions in a playoff game for the first time of his career. … The Patriots dropped to 0-4 in the playoffs when trailing by eight points or more at the half since 2001. …Shiloh Keo was flagged for a huge unnecessary roughness penalty on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Edelman in the fourth quarter. … Brady still holds a decisive 11-6 edge over Manning in their head-to-head matchups but Manning has now won three of four meetings in the AFC title game. … New England dropped to 8-4 in conference championship games. … Brady appeared in his NFL-record 31st postseason game. He also tossed his 56th career postseason touchdown pass, extending his record. … Gronkowski has scored a touchdown in five straight postseason games. … Steven Jackson's 1-yard touchdown run was the first of his postseason career.