Monday, January 16, 2006

Patriots 13, Broncos 27 (1/14/2006)

The self-inflicted losses are always the toughest. In a surprising role-reversal, your New England Patriots turned the ball over five times (yikes, was it *really* five?) and the Denver Broncos capitalized with a 27-13 win in Denver. Not that it matters now, but if the Pats had protected the ball and won the game, they'd host the Pittsburgh Steelers in next weekend's AFC Championship Game -- and I would have been there, dammit!! As you probably heard already, the loss sends the Pats home for the off-season, and here's hoping they hit a few free agency home runs and make another Super Bowl run next year.

As for this game, a lot of it came out the way I predicted it would (Broncos ran for only 96 yards, Denver held a halftime lead, Patriots came back in the second half), but a lot of it was beyond my powers as an NFL psychic. After six turnovers in their previous 10 playoff games, the Pats committed five in one game, and Denver was the beneficiary of their kindness. And it wasn't bit players; Kevin Faulk started the season of giving with a fumble just before the half; Tom Brady threw two INTs, and Troy Brown's devastating dropped punt was the final nail in the coffin. You know your team had trouble when the opponent scored on drives of 1, 1, 7, and 15 yards.

The offense was the main culprit. The blitz pick up was terrible all night, with Denver defenders flying free at the quarterback on half of the passing plays. Brady wasn't sacked, but he hurried many throws and threw off his back foot far too often. And the predictable results were throws that missed the mark and Brady's lazy interception late in the third quarter. That play changed the entire game. Instead of kicking an easy field goal to cut the deficit to 1 point (would have been 10-9), the INT led to a one-yard Bronco touchdown and a 17-6 Denver lead. The Patriots never recovered.

As for the running offense, it was okay at best. 79 yards and a 3.8 per rush average were good enough to keep the Denver defense honest, and both Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk helped some in the passing game. But Faulk's killer fumble with less than two minutes to play in the first half started a chain reaction that added up to a 10-3 halftime deficit instead of a 3-0, 6-0, or 10-0 halftime lead. The fumble (the only one that Denver really caused) was followed by a brutally bad pass interference call and then a one-yard touchdown plunge. Then, Ellis Hobbs fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and Denver kicked a field goal. 10 points for the half, all on turnovers, and all in the last two minutes. Just awful. The kind of playoff performance you expect from a first time entrant (like Jacksonville), not the defending Super Bowl Champions.

Lost in the defeat was a great performance by Deion Branch (8 catches for 153 yards). But then, most all great performances get lost when you team is done for the year.

The defense did everything they could, except force more turnovers. They held the Broncos vaunted running game to only 96 yard, a significant upgrade from the first game's 178 yards. (Note: Denver out rushed the Patriots 2-to-1 in the first game, but barely out gained them on the ground this time.) Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Mike Vrabel and the rest of the front seven made sure that Jake Plummer would have to win by passing, not with the steady pounding of the running game. The only way the defense could make up for the short field given up by the offense and special teams would be to get turnovers themselves. And that was not their strength this year; they had only 18 takeaways for the entire season, barely 1 per game. Well, they got their 1 interception this game (a great play by Asante Samuel), but it wasn't enough to make up for 5 giveaways.

The secondary did a decent job; intercepting once and keeping the Bronco receivers in front of them most of the game. This supposed weakness kept the Broncos in check for all but two sustained drives (an early 60-yard drive that ended with the Broncos failing on a fourth-and-one, and a late 61-yard drive that ended with a Bronco field goal). Again, without the short field, the defense played well enough to win, but no NFL team can consistently stop any other NFL team when start so close to their own goal line.

Special teams were especially horrible. Ellis Hobbs fumbled a kickoff when hit by the *kicker*, and Troy Brown muffed a punt that set up Denver's last touchdown and sealed the win for the Broncos. Troy's fumble seemed especially brutal when the Patriots next drive was 2 plays for 77 yards and a quick touchdown. If the same drive happened after a Troy Brown fair catch instead, the score would have read 17-13 Denver with almost 10 minutes to go -- *still* a winnable game, despite all the problems. Add to that Adam Vinatieri's missed 43-yard field goal (which would have made it a one-score game with almost 13 minutes to play), and it was a sorry, sorry exhibition of special teams.

So where does that leave us. Combined with a Pittsburgh win on Sunday, the Patriots would have hosted the AFC Championship game next Sunday. Instead, they will watch Denver host the game. They might be looking to replace defensive coordinator Eric Mangini (reportedly going to the Jets), and will undoubtedly hire a much needed offensive coordinator (they went without one this year). Free agency starts in early-February, and the draft is in April. Usually, we would wait a few more weeks before talk of reloading, but Saturday's loss leaves nothing else to talk about this year.

In the next week, I'll send my regular season awards email. Sorry I didn't send it sooner, but I never got the chance with all the action at the end of the year and no playoff bye week. Even though this loss is disappointing, the season had some bright spots. I'll try to highlight them in that email.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sometimes it isn't so much the turnovers as when they happen. The first four turnovers all cost the Patriots a lead or cost them a chance to make it a one-score game."

Keep the faith (for 2006),

- Scott



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