The New England Patriots routed the Denver Broncos 43-21 to claim the top spot in AFC as Tom Brady improved his record to 11-5 against longtime rival and reigning MVP, Peyton Manning. Manning-Brady encounters have always served up mouth-watering matchups, from the Manning-inspired Colts comeback in the 2006 playoff game, to Brady helping the Patriots overcome a 24–0 deficit at half time to win in overtime in Foxborough last season.
The most recent duel between the future Hall-of-Famers promised to be more intriguing than ever, as they went into the game each having thrown 14 touchdowns to zero interceptions in their last 4 games this season, averaging over 300 yards per game with a nearly 70 percent pass completion rate. While Brady had gone passed 50,000 yards, Manning broke the record for the most touchdowns thrown by any quarterback in the NFL.
Last season ended on humiliating notes for both teams, with the Broncos steamrolling the Patriots in the AFC championship game and then getting outplayed themselves from the first snap itself in Super Bowl XLVIII. This led to what Broncos General Manager, John Elway, described as an ‘arms race’ in the offseason. Broncos signed former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib as a free agent and went on to add Pro Bowlers, safety T J Ward and veteran pass-rusher Demarcus Ware.
They also completed the controversial signing of Emmanuel Sanders to make up for the loss of Eric Decker to free agency. The Patriots responded by signing five-time Pro-Bowler Darrelle Revis and picking up corner Brandon Browner and wide receiver Brandon Lafell as free agents. Most significantly, though, they had their tight-end Rob Gronkowski fit and firing on all cylinders. Having significantly beefed up their defense, the Broncos arrived at Foxborough with one of the best defensive teams in the AFC, being ranked first against the rush.
There were a lot of question marks on the Patriots’ offensive line after they were badly exposed by the Chiefs in Kansas City. While the Pats’ defense against the pass has been excellent, their ability to stop the run has been modest. These, along with predictions of really strong winds set up for a most fascinating contest.
What was perhaps underplayed going into the game was the impact the special teams would have on the outcome. Stephen Gostkowski scored a 49-yard field goal defying the winds to put the Patriots on board, and then followed it up with another 29-yarder to draw Patriots within a point of the Broncos at the end of the first quarter. Peyton Manning is not just a touchdown-throwing machine; he is also widely regarded as being one of the most intelligent players in the game with an incredible ability to read defensive coverages. Thus it was no surprise when the Patriots defense came with tight coverages on the outside. He used the slant route to good effect with slot receiver Wes Welker and tight-end Julius Thomas in his arsenal.
However, for once he would be outfoxed by the mastermind tactician, Bill Belichick. On one such play, defensive end Rob Ninkovich dropped back in coverage instead of rushing and forced a rare Peyton Manning interception. Since the injury to premier pass-rusher, Chandler Jones, fellow defensive end Ninkovich stepped up, racking up 3 sacks against the Bills, scoring a touchdown following a fumble recovery against the Bears and now picking off Manning.
The impact of special teams was even more stark as Julian Edelman, having just scored a touchdown in the previous Patriots drive, returned a punt for an 84-yard touchdown, his fourth and a franchise record. In the ensuing Broncos drive, kicker Brandon McManus hit the upright with while attempting a 41-yard field goal. This miss had an impact on future plays. In the next drive with Broncos down 7-20 and halftime fast approaching, Manning went for it on fourth and 6 from the Patriots 34 yards line rather than attempt a field goal. Recently acquired Patriots linebacker, Akeem Ayers sacked Peyton Manning on the play, and Brady finished the half with a touchdown to Shane Vereen, putting the Patriots up 7–27.
Those betting on a spectacular Manning-led comeback would have been excited to first see Brady throw an interception in the Patriots’ first drive after halftime and then Manning responding with a touchdown to Julius Thomas. However, the Broncos’ comeback mission took a near fatal turn when former Patriot Wes Welker failed to hold on to a Manning pass, which was picked off by the ever-alert Brandon Browner.
Brady found Lafell for a touchdown to take full advantage of the turnover and take a whopping 23-point lead. While Emmanuel Sanders notched up 151 yards in reception, cross 100 yards for the 5th time this season, the moment of the match belonged to the Gronk. Brady, facing the rush, moved out of the pocket and targeted Gronkowski under double coverage; Gronkowski leapt for a superman-like one-handed grab and almost took it to the end-zone, but was ruled down-by-contact at the one-yard line. In the very next play he set up wide as if expecting a fade but would come inside for an easy touchdown.
In the end, the result was inevitable, and it wasn’t pretty for the Broncos. Despite throwing for over 400 yards and having two receivers go past 100 yards in reception, the Broncos never looked menacing. In the moments that mattered they came horribly short; the missed field goal, 0/4 in fourth downs, 3/11 in 3rd downs with the first three third down attempts all 10+ yards sealed their fate. It wasn’t just Brady magic for the Patriots — Edelman had a great game receiving and in specials teams play, Gronk proved to be a mismatch for the Broncos’ defense. Despite losing captain Jerod Mayo for the season and premier pass rusher Chandler Jones for weeks, Belichick used his cornerbacks to restrict the feared Denver offense and Ninkovich, Collins, Ayers and Patrick Chung all came up with key plays.
What was brewing to be an epic turned out to be a rather one-sided affair, revenge for the Patriots for the AFC Championship game loss last season perhaps. However, there is a strong possibility of these two heavyweights clashing in the playoffs again. The Patriots may have just win home-field advantage (or maybe not), but there is plenty of drama to unfold between now and January!