Monday, January 25, 2016

Patriots Outlasted By Broncos, 20-18

Sigh. The Patriots came up just short yesterday, losing 20-18 to the Broncos. That means no trip to the Super Bowl, no chance that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to swallow his tongue handing the Lombardi Trophy to Robert Kraft, and no chance that Brady gets that fifth ring this year.

Despite the close final score, the Broncos defense dominated play. They sacked Tom Brady 4 times and hit him 20 times in the game (according to some reports, 20 is the highest total for any NFL game this season). And even that might have been survivable, if the Pats receivers could get quick enough separation. But that's where Denver's D did the job; they jammed receivers at the line and dropped in to short zones that didn't allow for the quick releases necessary to keep Brady upright.

The Patriots offensive line was just dreadful. It's clear now that their performance against the Chiefs was fool's gold -- with numbers helped by quick release throws and two missing KC pass rushers. Outside pressure regularly beat Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, and when they added a sixth linemen, Cameron Fleming got whipped outside, too. Add to that the facts that Brady was their leading rusher with 13 yards and they committed 4 penalties for 30 yards, and it's obvious they sucked.

How was the quarterback? Hard to tell. Every wide-view replay verified what I feared; that the receivers simply weren't winning any one-on-one battles. Even Brady's completions were usually in tight windows and some looked like they would be knocked away before reaching the receivers. And oh, those missed throws to running back James White. He had him breaking open for touchdowns twice on one drive, and overthrew both times.

Brady made some amazing plays, two fourth-down conversions on the final drive, for example. But his two interceptions were just plain bad throws. One interception led to a touchdown drive, and the other killed great field position before the half.

With the exception of Gronkowski, the receivers join the O-line in getting an F for the day. No separation, no blocking on running plays, important drops (I'm looking at you, Danny Amendola), and an overall lack of focus. Gronkowski battled injuries, cramps, and double/triple-teams to grab 8 catches for 144 yards and an almost-tying touchdown. Julian Edelman was invisible in the first half, and I'll never understand how Brandon LaFell went from 74 catches and 7 touchdowns in 2014 to 37 and 0 in 2015. SMH.

The running backs suffered from bad O-line play, too. 14 carries for 31 yards, and Brady had more yards than any running back. They did have 7 catches for 74 yards, and if Brady had hit White on either of the touchdown throws, the entire game might have come out differently.

Linebacker Jamie Collins was emblematic of how the defense played all day. He got beaten on both of the Broncos touchdown passes in the first half. And in the second half, he had two sacks (for 25 lost yards), five tackles, and two QB hits, as the team held the Broncos to just three second-half points. The Patriots offensive problems allowed Denver to get a lead and play small-ball/clock-management and hold on for the win.

The other linebackers, mostly Dont'a Hightower and Jonathan Freeny helped slow the Broncos running game some (3.3 yards per carry, as opposed to 5.6ypc in their November meeting). And Freeny made a heads-up play, covering a lateral that was eventually ruled a turnover for the Patriots. (It also led to their only touchdown in the first half). But it was surprisingly easy for the Broncos receivers to get open in the short-middle zones. Those throws are the easiest for Peyton Manning at this point, so I expected the Patriots linebackers to cut them off and force outside throws instead.

The defensive line did a great job all day long. Not only did they shut down the run, but they pushed the inside pocket effectively enough to force about 8-10 bad plays by Manning. Alan Branch had a sack and a tackle for a loss, Chandler Jones did a nice job dropping into coverage to force a sack of Manning, and Rob Ninkovich was instrumental in stopping the run.

The only really bad play by the D-line was losing contain on a Manning scramble. He gained a first down, and that changed field position significantly. The next four Patriots drives started at their own 8, 4, 20, and 29 yards lines. That made it pretty tough to come back.

The only real complaint about the secondary is that twice cornerback Malcolm Butler was in position for an interception and he missed both times. Once the pass was completed, the other time it was incomplete. But in a game when the team needed a big play, he had two in his hands and didn't come up with either. He ended up with two knockdowns and seven tackles, but had a chance to be a hero in the game.

Logan Ryan did great work on Demaryius Thomas, holding him to two catches for twelve yards. (Side note: the Broncos should cut Thomas; he never shows up in big games.) And both safety Devin McCourty and third-corner Justin Coleman had key knockdowns early in the game. Safety Patrick Chung did a decent job in run support, although I suspect he was responsible for deep coverage on the Broncos first touchdown.

Special teams did not hold up their end of the bargain. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in a decade, and it forced the team to try for two at the end of the game (and of course, the try failed). He took the blame for the loss, and though it's not all on him, he has to figure out why big-game kicks are more difficult for him. The team also had an "illegal downfield" penalty on one punt and "illegal motion" on another. These are pre-season types of penalties, and there's no reason they should happen in a playoff game.

The punt game itself was very good. Ryan Allen's net average was 43.3, gunner Brandon King made a nice tackle, and they forced Denver into a 15-yard penalty on another punt. Also, Danny Amendola and Edelman combined for a 12-yard average on four punt returns; not bad.

Several coaching decisions left me puzzled. First, the decision to receive the opening kickoff instead of deferring was a head-scratcher. Bill Belichick defers so he can get the ball first in the second half, when the crowd is usually quieter than they are to start the game. In a situation like this, where crowd noise would disrupt his undermanned offensive line, it's strange that they'd decide to take the ball for the first time in recent memory.

Also, they went for it on fourth-down late in the game instead of kicking field goals. The first time would have been a 43-yarder to make it 20-15 with 6:00 to play. The second time would have made it 20-15 (or 20-18) with 2:25 to play, and the Patriots holding all their timeouts. In a game where they ended up 2-15 on third-down conversions (13%), it might have been wiser to kick one of those field goals to set up a touchdown to win it (or kick both to set up a field goal for the win).

So where does that leave us? I'll be getting back to my normal sleep patterns, I guess. The loss sends the team back to the drawing board. It appears both their offensive and defensive coordinators will be back next season, so they'll have to start with player evaluations and decide whether or not to keep their special teams and offensive line coaches.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the last five possessions of the game, the Broncos had 3 yards of total offense, the Patriots had 3 red zone possessions.

Non-Brady MVP of the Game: Alan Branch, who disrupted the Denver running attack and notched a sack.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Wait 'til next year won't stop hurting until the Monday after the Super Bowl."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-5 & 1-1 :(

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