The Denver Broncos are on their way to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in franchise history, and Peyton Manning is going for the third time in his illustrious career. The Broncos dismantled the New England Patriots in a 26-16 win. Here’s the Notebook Nine takeaways from the New England-Denver game for the AFC Championship.
- *We’ll begin with the quarterbacks, of whom the story revolved around. Peyton Manning was nothing short of fantastic, hitting 32/43 for 400 yards and seeming to connect on every throw of real consequence. I didn’t think Tom Brady played a bad game—24/38 for 277 yards, and like Manning, no mistakes. But Brady did miss some throws down the field, and playing above-average wasn’t going to cut it on a day when his counterpart was locked in.
- *Before anyone in the media comes down too hard on Brady, they might want to consider the vast difference in the receivers each was throwing to. Wes Welker was probably Denver’s fourth option in the passing game. If Welker were still in New England, he’d be #1. There’s no comparison of a Bronco cast that has Daryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Welker, against the Patriot corps led by Julian Edelman, a converted defensive back.
- *But if I’m a Peyton Manning fan, I look at the above argument and say that this is just what goes around, comes around. When Brady’s Patriots beat Manning’s Colts in the early ‘00s repeatedly, the Pats had a decisively superior cast, and that didn’t stop the media from taking the results and using them as a club to beat Manning over the head. Maybe the real lesson here is that these are just two elite quarterbacks and whichever team loses the head-to-head game should look elsewhere in assigning blame. That would seem an obvious point, but in today’s media world apparently not.
- *A disappointing failure of the New England supporting cast was the complete lack of a ground game. No one expected LeGarrette Blount to run over Denver the way he did Indianapolis in the divisional playoff game. But six yards rushing? That’s two weeks in a row the Broncos have shut down a running game that was churning on all cylinders. The season-long rush defense numbers for Denver aren’t very good, but we see in the NFL that current form matters most. That’s something to keep in mind when evaluating the Bronco chances against Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks.
- *Even given those results, I still felt Patriot head coach Bill Belichick abandoned the run too quickly. New England only ran the ball 16 times total, just five by Blount. I know they fell behind, but it wasn’t until the third quarter that the game started to get out of hand. New England should have had 15-16 rush attempts in the first half alone. They had no choice but to try and establish it.
- *But one place I would not have gone to the run if I were Belichick was a two-point conversion with 3:07 to play that gave New England a chance to cut the lead to eight points and keep it a game. The Patriots did a standard handoff to Blount and it was stuffed. It’s one thing to make the run a vital part of your offense. But when the season is on the line I want Tom Brady with the football. At the very least, fake a pass and run a quick inside handoff.
- *A huge loss for New England came early in the second quarter when Patriot corner Aqib Talib left the game. I was watching with a friend and immediately noted to him that when Talib left last year’s AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens, Anquan Boldin suddenly went off. Sure enough, Demaryius Thomas, not heard from through the first quarter, ended up with seven catches for 143 yards.
- *I thought it was significant when New England drove into the red zone late in the first half and had to settle for a field goal, cutting the lead to 10-3. Not only did they lose four points, but finishing the drive with a touchdown probably knocks another 60-90 seconds off the clock and doesn’t leave Manning enough time. At this point I noted to my friend that Denver got the ball to start the second half and said that New England could be in a 20-3 hole by the time Brady saw the ball again. Sure enough, that’s what happened.
- *A competent Denver ground game, Moreno and Ball on the tag team for 102 yards on 26 carries. That’s just enough running to keep a defense honest.