Nobody will ever feel bad for Patriots fans, and honestly, nobody ever should. One would think that fifteen years of excellence would be enough to satisfy even the most spoiled of Patriots fans, or perhaps the 5th consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance could get that job done, but no, this one left a mark. The reason this one stung a little harder correlates directly to how much dirt was piled onto this team over the past year, and how quick the entire world was to ignore the damning Peyton Manning HGH connection. But this post isn’t about that, it’s not even about how the Patriots were on a mission this season, unlike one they’d ever set out on before. There have been plenty of playoff losses over the past 15 years, some have come in Super Bowls, some in division rounds, and for the second time in three years the Patriots were denied a trip to the Super Bowl after a disappointing effort in Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
There are several reason this game went the way it did. The Broncos have a great defense and they played a great game, but the Patriots were capable of much more on offense. Their performance in Denver on November 30th is evidence of that. The Patriots, without Julian Edelman, put up more points in Denver that week than they did last night. In the division round, Ben Roethlisberger with two practice squad running backs and without his number one receiver was only two points worse than Brady was last night with the Pats offense essentially at full strength.
What we saw last night was a combination of the offensive line playing a flat-out miserable game, Tom Brady under siege all evening leading to missed throws and bad decisions, and Bill Belichick leaving points on the field that could have turned Brady’s potential game-tying drive at the end into a potential game-winning drive. Let’s start at the beginning.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
This unit played over their heads for most of the year but to say they got exposed would be vastly underselling it. Cameron Fleming, Marcus Cannon, and even Sebastian Vollmer got abused by the trio of Jackson/Miller/Ware all night long. Tom Brady got hit 20 times, more than any QB this season in a single game. The Broncos were able to bring their defense up and pressure Brady to hold onto the ball. A combination of his receivers not getting open deep and his tackles not keeping the pocket in tact led to a stagnant offense, quarterbacked by a panicky Tom Brady.
This was not Tom Brady’s finest hour. It’s difficult to place too much blame on a guy who got hit 20 times by the best pass rush in the NFL but when you’re the greatest quarterback of all time sometimes extraordinary measures are called for and unfortunately on this night they simply were not delivered. Brady targeted running back James White a team high sixteen times. That’s one more target than Gronk, three more than Edelman, and sixteen more than Brandon Lafell. I will admit that going into this week I was hoping that James White would get some more looks, but to see him become the focal point of the offense was too much for him and it reflected in the numbers (5 catches for 45 yards). Brady’s most visible miscue was failing to see Rob Gronkowski streaking across the right side of the end zone with a step on his defender on the two point conversion, but it was one of several miscues, no doubt exacerbated by the o-line’s decaying protection.
Which brings us to…..
It is a testament to how good Bill Belichick is at his job that this year, in which the number of startling decisions made was a lot higher than usual (kicking in OT, the Ebner onside kicks, the entire gameplan vs Miami, 4th and 1 off the top of my head) his team came within three points of the Super Bowl. That being said, Bill seemed to make a point of sacrificing homefield advantage for health at the end of this season (though he never admitted it openly) and despite going into Denver with a healthy Gronk, Edelman, Vollmer, etc – the Patriots were unable to fool the Broncos pass rushers on the snap count due to the ear-drum rupturing decibel level in Denver. Bill also made the decision to go for it on 4th and 1, a decision that reasonable people could argue made sense at the time. That is, until we all saw the play-call. A play-action lob behind the line of scrimmage that was swallowed up almost immediately by Chris Harris Jr. left us all wondering why Bill didn’t just take the points and hope Brady could pull another rabbit out of his hat at the end of the game, an ending we’ve all seen before.
Brady would end up pulling said rabbit out of said hat anyway, but after an impossible TD drive the Pats found themselves needing another play just to tie the game and send it to overtime, which could have gone any number of ways. Had the Pats kicked the field goal on 4th and 1, the combination of Manning’s total ineffectiveness in the second half and Brady’s flare for the dramatic would have set the stage for a potential game-winning Brady drive as opposed to a potential game-tying one.
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With all that being said, this team suffered a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball and still made it to the AFC Championship Game and were a field goal away from the Super Bowl. They had a lot to play for this season. Not just defending the title but for Bill Belichick this was another instance in which he found himself at the center of a witch-hunt with his, and his team’s reputations both on the line. Much like their first meeting this year with Denver, the Eagles game, the Jets game and the Dolphins game, this one was winnable, but they came up just short.
Barring some major strides taken by some of the other AFC teams this offseason the Pats are likely to be back in this position again next season. Until then, all we can do is collectively pray that when they are back in the postseason next year, that they’ll be playing anywhere but Denver.