On Sunday, the best team won, not the team with the best quarterback. There once was a time when New Englanders understood the difference.
They loved the Patriots and hated the Colts because Indy was all about the quarterback while their team was all about .?.?. the team. In this AFC title game, the Pats showed they now are a team whose success is almost totally based on the quarterback and his ability to get the ball out of his hands fast enough to make a subpar offensive line and average at best pass defense look better than they are. And for the second time, the Pats faced a Denver Broncos team that can play defense like few others, run the ball just enough and protect its passer even if he takes more than two seconds to throw.
Denver faced Tom Brady’s offense twice this season. It won both times. The Broncos won the first time without three of their defensive starters. This time, both teams had all their weapons until Denver lost both starting safeties in the fourth quarter. Not surprisingly, that’s when Brady got 171 of his 323 total yards. But he couldn’t get a win because that’s hard to do from your back.
QUARTERBACK: S (Survivor)
Once again, Tom Brady was a (S)urvivor. It wasn’t his greatest day, but can you blame him after being hit a career-high 23 times? The results of all the concussive chaos were poor decision-making and inaccuracy. The Broncos repeatedly took away his first option, forcing him to hold the ball an average of 2.43 seconds. Most of the season, that number barely was higher than 2. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme put pressure on the Pats line to protect longer. It couldn’t
Brady completed 48.2?percent of his throws, threw three picks (the one on the two-point conversion doesn’t really count, but it ended the season) and converted only 2-of-15 third downs (13.3 percent). On the first interception, he never saw linebacker Von Miller drop in coverage on tight end Rob Gronkowski and then widen out to put himself in the passing lane
On the second, he was fooled by Phillips’ call, believing he had running back James White one-on-one with a linebacker. Safety Darian Stewart undercut White and made the pick of a ball that was underthrown because defensive end Malik Jackson was in Brady’s grill. Brady had an awful 18.1 passer rating at halftime, and even after Denver lost its safeties in the fourth quarter, the defense kept flattening him, twice forcing hurried fourth-down throws that ended key drives. Still, Brady lofted a perfect fourth-and-10 pass to Gronkowski for 40 yards. Four plays later, as he was falling backwards from another hit, he lofted a great ball between two defenders, and Gronk went up to snare it in the end zone, reminiscent of Dwight Clark from Joe Montana
Any quarterback would have been rattled by all the hits, but few would have stood tall enough to come within one pass of overtime.
RUNNING BACK: D
They couldn’t run across the locker room for Gatorade, and James White is not Dion Lewis in the passing game. Denver’s defense took away Tom Brady’s favorite weapons most of the game, leaving him to throw 16 times to White, who almost made several big catches. Emphasis on almost. White was one-on-one with linebackers much of the day, a matchup Wade Phillips hoped Brady would focus on because it took his best weapons out of play.
Brady did focus on White and completed only five passes, as several long throws fell short of the running back’s ability to handle them. One third-quarter pass that could have been a touchdown was deflected by backup safety Josh Bush after White broke into the open but couldn’t create enough separation. Brandon Bolden beat Von Miller on one circle route for a 20-yard catch, but White was the featured player, and his production was minimal.
WIDE RECEIVER: D
Neither Julian Edelman nor Danny Amendola could unshackle themselves from Denver’s quick, agile corners. The shallow cross all but disappeared, as did yards after the catch. Taking Edelman out of the equation was a major part of Wade Phillips’ plan, leaving Brady holding the bag or holding his head. Amendola clearly was hurt and was subpar. His toughness was on display when he recovered from several big hits, but even when he tried to dive for a first down after making a nice catch, he came up short. Same was true for Edelman when Brady threw him a critical fourth-and-1 pass off motion designed to fool Denver’s defense. Instead, corner Chris Harris peeled off his man as soon as Brady threw and leveled Edelman for no gain. That’s basically how it was for the receivers: no gains.
TIGHT END: B-minus
Mike Williams played early, not often, and Scott Chandler made a cameo appearance, but this was about Rob Gronkowski. Denver bottled him up for 31/2 quarters by being physical at the line of scrimmage or by double- and triple-covering him so Tom Brady couldn’t get him the ball quickly. He finally exploded at the expense of backup safeties, getting 77 of his 144 yards on the final two drives. Life would not have been so easy if T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart stayed in the game. Still, Gronkowski made a circus catch over the shoulder when he ran by Chris Harris and Josh Bush, the latter forgetting he had deep responsibility. Gronk couldn’t handle one fourth-down throw in the end zone in heavy traffic, in part because cornerback Aqib Talib held his jersey and in part because the throw was high. In those jump-ball situations, it’s every man for himself. Gronk knows that, even though he complained. Later, he scored the final touchdown on a leaping catch in the back of the end zone between Harris and backup safety Shiloh Keo by pushing Harris out of the way. No call is the right call on those plays.
OFFENSIVE LINE: F
If your quarterback gets trampled all day (four sacks, 23 hits) and you can’t open a hole for a single run, you failed miserably at your job. Linebackers Von Miller (21/2 sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (seven hits) embarrassed tackles Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer. Neither could handle the quickness, agility or power. Cannon gave up a ridiculous 10 pressures, two sacks and seven hurries, plus he had a false start on a third-and-1 QB sneak. Why move if you didn’t block anybody all game? Ware repeatedly beat Vollmer off the line to the outside and with a spin move inside that left him blocking air. Interior pressure also was a problem with guard Josh Klein allowing 11 pressures, four hits and seven hurries. Defensive linemen Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe created the kind of interior pressure Brady hates, all while Denver blitzed only 17?percent of the time. Center Bryan Stork wasn’t much help and took a stupid penalty for a post-whistle head butt that negated a 5-yard run. On one play, Cameron Fleming cam in to play next to Cannon, putting more than 600 pounds of beef in front of Miller. Miller came out of his stance so fast he was past them both and on a path to Brady before Fleming turned his hips. Noise was a factor for the line, but not as big as the physical mismatches.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Denver’s vaunted running game was held to 3.3 yards on 30 carries, and only two plays really hurt. One was a surprising Peyton Manning scramble for 12 yards and a first down when end Chandler Jones’ rush got too far upfield and created a wide gap in the lanes. C.J. Anderson also had a critical 30-yard run that led to a field goal. Right guard Louis Vasquez pulled and leveled end Rob Ninkovich while the left side knocked down safety Patrick Chung. End Jabaal Sheard didn’t apply much pressure on Manning but had six run stuffs. Tackle Alan Branch beat center Matt Paradis with a bull rush to sack Manning. Ninkovich seemed to be in coverage more than the norm, and that didn’t always go well. On one of tight end Owen Daniels’ touchdowns, he and linebacker Jamie Collins seemed confused as to what their assignments were. Collins let Daniels get deep on him and Ninkovich covered air. End Chandler Jones was in attendance, but he went unnoticed.
Jamie Collins had the oddest of days. He made some truly spectacular plays, both against the run and twice sacking Manning, but he was beaten by Owen Daniels for two touchdowns. One of his sacks was a direct result of his running partner, Dont’a Hightower, barreling into Matt Paradis and knocking the center into running back Ronnie Hillman. The second sack was a result of a perfectly timed delayed blitz, as Collins ran past rookie guard Max Garcia untouched. But Collins was badly turned around by a head fake from Daniels and beaten up the seam for a 21-yard TD, then was beaten by Daniels’ double move for a 12-yard score. So he had eight tackles, two sacks, three tackles for losses and gave up two TDs. That’s a negative net. Jonathan Freeney made the kind of heads-up play Bill Belichick teaches when he picked up what Hillman thought was an incomplete pass in the flat. After a challenge, officials confirmed it was a lateral. That was a key moment as it handed the Pats the ball at Denver’s 22, setting up their only touchdown until the final minute of the game.
DEFENSIVE BACK: B
Corners Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan were neither spectacular nor awful. Both allowed too much cushion early, but they pressed more later. Butler struggled against receiver Emmanuel Sanders, giving up five catches on eight targets for 62 yards, including an 11-yarder on third-and-10 and a 34-yarder when he got out-jumped despite being in good position. He also was beaten on a slant that would have been a touchdown to Sanders, but Peyton Manning missed the throw. On the upside, he raked the ball out of receiver Demaryius Thomas’ hands after he’d seemingly caught a crossing pass, and he made a great tackle on a third-and-1 toss sweep, dragging C.J. Anderson down for a loss. He also gave the Pats one last chance to tie the game when he deflected a long throw intended for Sanders. Ryan was way too soft on a 13-yard throw to Jordan Norwood on 3rd-and-11. He was rightly flagged for interference when he gabbed Thomas (two catches, 12 yards) with both hands well downfield, but much of the time, he shut him down. Safety Patrick Chung again was tough against the run and was a pivotal part of limiting Denver’s stretch runs that gouged the Pats defense in the first meeting. Safety Devin McCourty made a nice play in single coverage on tight end Vernon Davis, deflecting Manning’s throw. He also made several good run fills. Rookie Justin Coleman was solid, though he was beaten for what should have been a TD by Norwood. Manning missed the throw.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Stephen Gostkowski’s missed PAT brings this grade down cruelly because it turned out to be a critical error. He otherwise made two field goals, and his kickoffs predictably were deep. The coverage teams were mostly sound. Danny Amendola had one punt return of 28 yards, but he also failed to fair catch another at the 15 that bounced over his head and was downed at the 3.
Josh McDaniels had no clue what Wade Phillips was up to. He didn’t have an answer for Denver consistently taking away the first option in the passing game, and he refused to give help to his struggling tackles, allowing them to be burned by the rush so often they had to fly home in hazmat suits. Matt Patricia figured out how to keep Denver’s zone-blocking stretch runs under control, shutting down the cut-back lanes that were wider than the Mass Pike in the first game. As for Bill Belichick, he did some odd things like deciding to take the ball after winning the opening coin flip. That was uncharacteristic, and when his offense got stuffed and Denver came back and scored, it backfired. He twice decided against late field goals inside the red zone because at some point he needed a TD. Critics were irate, but he always goes for it on fourth down in such situations, so don’t complain now. Also, his offense had been sluggish, and there was no guarantee it would get close again. The moves made sense. And spare me the “he didn’t try to win in Miami” argument. You get your QB hit 23 times, throw three picks, fail to convert on third down and twice fail on fourth down, you could play the game in Tom Brady’s backyard and you still wouldn’t win.