The New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos' sequel to their regular season match-up of a little less than two months ago bore little resemblance to the original production, and as with most sequels, it was not nearly as entertaining as the original in terms of creating dramatic tension and a riveting plot line. In Sunday's AFC Championship game, there were no repeats of the turnovers, the wild swings in momentum, the furious comeback, and the unusual coaching decision in overtime for the simple fact that there was no overtime. Really, it was a sequel in name only, not only because of the inner workings of the contest, but because more importantly to the outcome-driven sports world, there was a different winner.
After the game ended with a 26-16 final score, it was the Denver Broncos who were walking off the field victorious and planning their subsequent trip to the Super Bowl as a reward for a game hard-fought while it was the New England Patriots who had their season ended. Even though it was one of the more impressive seasons of the Patriots because of all the adversity the team had to deal with in the offseason, regular season, and postseason, it was no doubt still a disappointing end to the season for the players. The Patriots came so close to winning, but were simply defeated on Sunday by a superior team that had a superior collection of players on the roster.
Since there were no turnovers upon which to capitalize, the final result of the contest game down to which team could better execute on offense against the other, and the Denver Broncos had a lot more success in going against the Patriots defense than the Patriots offense had challenging the Broncos defense.
The key to the Broncos' offensive success were the methodical and ultra-efficient (in most parts of the field) drives they employed throughout the contest. Simply totaling up the number of plays a team runs and calculating their time of possession are not necessarily indicators of how well the team is doing on the field, but the Broncos made the most of their high number of plays and dominating time of possession.
During the contest, the Broncos ran a total of 71 plays and had the ball for 35:44 out of a 60-minute contest; the Patriots ran 56 seconds and had the ball for 24:16. Not only did the Broncos drive the tempo of the game with their sustained drives, but they also outgained the Patriots on a per-play basis, averaging 7.1 yards per play to the Patriots' 5.7 yards per play.
Furthermore, of the eight offensive possessions the Broncos tallied on Sunday, none lasted fewer than six plays or gained fewer than 37 yards. Additionally, the Broncos scored on six of their possessions, and probably could have scored on a seventh if they had needed to; their last drive took the remaining 3:07 off the clock and ended at the Patriots' 12-yard line. Only once, on the opening drive, were the Broncos forced to punt the ball as they put on a masterful and superlative offensive display against the Patriots.
No surprise, it was the Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning who spearheaded the offensive attack. He completed 32 of his 43 pass attempts en route to gaining 400 yards (9.3 yards per pass attempt) and was not sacked once as he spread the ball around to all of his many receiving options and made the most of his completions. Twenty-one of his completions netted the Broncos a first down and two others were caught in the end zone for touchdowns.
Only in the red zone did the Broncos offensive machine sputter as they only scored on two of their five meaningful red-zone possessions; as mentioned earlier, they could have scored on their last trip to the red zone, but had no need to put even more points on the scoreboard.
Still, it was quite enough as the Patriots just could not keep pace. The Patriots also possessed the ball on eight separate occasions, but really only solved the Broncos defense on their final two possessions, which both ended in touchdowns. On those two drives, the Patriots ran 19 plays and gained 160 yards, meaning those two drives accounted for a disproportionate amount of the plays run by the team (33.9 percent) and the total yards gained (50.0 percent).
Their other drives were a lot less deserving of praise as they mixed in a couple of three-and-outs with drives that only gave the illusion of going anywhere; the Patriots did manage a field-goal drive in the first half to avoid being completely shut out during the first 30 minutes of the game, but they were forced into that field goal after Tom Brady was sacked for a loss of 11 yards on 3rd and 8 from the Broncos' 18-yard line. Even when the Patriots offense did experience a modicum of success in the first three quarters, it came wrapped in a pig's blanket of failure.
Overmatched would be the best way to describe the Patriots on Sunday, and their quickly dwindling win probability backs up the fact of their inferiority to the Broncos. Even before the first quarter had ended, the Patriots had less than a 50 percent chance of winning the game, and outside of a few plays, their win probability experienced a progressive decline during the contest.
However, despite the Patriots never really challenging the supremacy of the Broncos on Sunday, their overall season was still a tremendous one. It is not every NFL franchise that would have been able to overcome all the adversity that the Patriots had to in order to even make it to the AFC Championship game, and for that, everyone involved with the Patriots organization should still be proud. They were simply beaten by the better team, and there is no shame in that.