The New England Patriots season came to an end Sunday with a 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos. The final score is misleading as the game was never even that close. In my eyes, the game was over early. It came down to back-to-back drives at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second quarter. One drive for each team set the tone for the rest of the game. It may be an oversimplification, but the game was over with 7:50 to go in the second quarter. Here is what I saw:
Patriots drive starts with 3:43 left in the first quarter, trailing 3-0
The Patriots had already had two drives prior to this series. Both resulted in three and outs. Not good. The previous drive ended when Brady lobbed a deep pass down the right sideline on 3rd-and-2 to ... Matthew Slater. The same Matthew Slater who has one career reception in six years with the Patriots. Maybe that should have been a warning sign about the struggles that were to come for this offense.
After a touchback, Brady hit Shane Vereen for a 24-yard catch-and-run. First first down for the Patriots. We could ignore the fact that the pass was almost picked off for a touchdown by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Then came one of the two plays of the game for me. Brady ran a well-executed play-action fake and missed a wide open Julian Edelman for what may well have been a touchdown. Edelman had his defender beat by a good five yards. The Patriots should have taken the lead, 7-3. Should have.
Who knows how the game would have been different. Maybe Peyton Manning would have tightened up under the pressure of having to play from behind-- the burden of playing for his legacy weighing him down. Maybe the Patriots establish their running game, giving LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley more than five carries each. Maybe the crowd is silenced.
To the Patriots credit, they continued to drive following the missed pass. Brady would hit Edelman for a gain of 18 to get the ball to the Denver 33. After the Patriots failed to gain any yardage on the next two plays, Brady hit Austin Collie for an eight-yard gain to the Denver 25. It wouldn't have given the Patriots a first down, but the Patriots would have been positioned for a 43-yard field goal-- a chip shot in the high altitude of Denver. Tie game, 3-3. Perhaps, even, the Patriots would go for it on 4th-and-short and continue to drive for a touchdown. But, hold on, flag on the play. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was flagged for a highly questionable offensive pass interference. Compared to how physical the game had been to this point and to the play that was about to come, the infraction was, as TV analyst Phil Simms put it, a mere "pillow fight."
The Patriots were pushed back. Brady hit Edelman for a short gain to the Denver 39. Instead of giving Gostkowski a shot at a 56-yard field goal, Bill Belichick chose to punt. This is the same stadium where Denver kicker Matt Prater kicked a NFL record 64-yarder earlier in the season. Sebastian Janikowski and Matt Elam shared the previous record (along with Tom Dempsey and David Akers) with kicks of 63 yards. Both kicks also occurred ... in Denver. Weather conditions were ideal. Gostkowski has every bit as strong a leg as Prater. Why not give him a chance?
Denver takes over at their own 7 yard line with 14:51 left in the 2nd quarter
Belichick's decision to punt resulted in Ryan Allen pooch punting and pinning Denver deep in their own territory. OK, maybe not the worst result in the world. If the Patriots could force a quick three and out, they'd have great field position again. Knowshon Moreno took care of that on the first play with an 11-yard gain off left tackle.
Two plays later came the other play of the game. Star receiver Demaryius Thomas, who had only one reception up to this point, dropped a short pass over the middle. The play looked innocent enough until you noticed that Aqib Talib was sprawled out on the ground a short distance behind Thomas. What Brady is to the offense is what Talib is to the Patriots defense. Heck, I could even make an argument that Talib is even more important to the entire team than Brady.
A closer look at the play showed that old friend, now turned enemy, Wes Welker launched himself at an unsuspecting Talib as Talib was chasing Thomas across the middle of the field. Belichick, the next day, would call it "one of the worst plays I've seen." Belichick also called it a "deliberate play by the receiver to take out Talib."
Overdramatic? Sour grapes? Yes. Should it have been a penalty? Yes. Does Welker know the importance of Talib to the Patriots? Yes. Does Welker know Talib has a bad hip? Yes. Did Welker intentionally try to take out Talib? Possibly.
The fact of the matter is, without Talib, the Patriots had zero chance of stopping Manning. Just a season ago, Talib also got hurt in the AFC Championship Game. The Baltimore Ravens exploited his absence as the Patriots had no answer for Baltimore's Anquan Boldin. Boldin would have two touchdown receptions in the fourth quarter of that game, clinching a 28-13 victory. The Ravens would go on to win the Super Bowl.
Without Talib, the Patriots secondary had no one who could stop Demaryius Thomas. Thomas would go on to catch seven passes for 134 yards and one touchdown.
But there was more frustration to come on this drive. After Talib's injury, the Broncos were faced with a 3rd-and-9. The Patriots could still have gotten decent field position if they could have come up with a stop. Manning would float a lob pass to the left sideline which was begging for a defender to pick it off. Somehow the pass fell between Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan... into the waiting arms of Wes Welker. First down.
Denver would face another 3rd down at their own 42. On the previous play, little used tight end Virgil Green (9 receptions in 2013) was positioned at running back and was almost tackled in the backfield when he was handed the ball on a running play. Instead, Green would rumble for a six-yard gain. It was the equivalent of the Patriots handing the ball off to Michael Hoomanawanui. It was almost as if the Broncos were mocking the Patriots.
Manning would overthrow Eric Decker on 3rd-and-1 on a quick-hitter. However, yet another phantom defensive holding penalty call-- this one on Logan Ryan. Ryan was actually picked on the play. The flag should have been the second offensive pass interference call of the drive. Instead, the Broncos were given a first down.
With the Broncos on the outskirts of Elam's field goal range, Denver had a 3rd-and-10 at the Patriots 39. Lined up in the shotgun, Manning noticed the Patriots had no linebackers positioned in the middle of the field. He audibled to a running play, handed off to Moreno who burst through for a 28-yard gain. Great audible by Manning. Horrible alignment by the Patriots.
Denver would face a fourth and final third down at the Patriots 2-yard line. Needing only inches for a first down, Andre Carter submarined through the line of scrimmage and had a chance at running back Montee Ball in the backfield. Ball high-stepped out of Carter's grasp and managed to get a favorable spot to give Denver a first down.
After that, it was all academic. It was inevitable the Broncos would score a touchdown. Manning made it look easy, rolling to the right and hitting a wide open Jason Tamme in the endzone.
Four third down conversions. Seven minutes elapsed off the clock. Talib hurt. Manning confident and in a rhythm. The Patriots left with no one who could cover Demaryius Thomas. Denver with a 10-0 lead at home on a picturesque day. Game over. I opened a book I had left half-finished back before the NFL season began in September and started reading again.