By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- That -- that was a rough one.
With shades of Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots' offensive line just was not up to the task of matching the Broncos' pass rushers on Sunday afternoon in Denver. The Broncos didn't need to do anything exotic; they just lined up and beat the Patriots off the ball damn near every snap, and as a result, New England's season is now over.
With that, of course, comes an avalanche of finger-pointing, name-calling and blame assessment. That's just par for the course (except in Seattle, where fans inexplicably wrote love letters to Pete Carroll after last year's Super Bowl flub, but I suppose that's a story for another day).
To be sure, there will be dabbles of that here, because from top to bottom, the Patriots were not at their best on Sunday. But this won't just be a cavalcade of rage and fire and brimstone. This will be a look at what was the final game of the year, and some thoughts about the season as a whole, so if you're interested in extending football season in New England for another couple of thousands of words, let's jump right in. (I realize that kind of sounds daunting, so I promise, there will be pictures. Many, many pictures.)
--Right off the bat, from a purely Patriots perspective, if you asked me why they lost, I'd assess the blame as such:
- Tom Brady's interception deep in New England territory.
- The offensive line's inability to block anybody in orange.
- The decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 instead of kicking a field goal.
- The missed PAT.
- Letting Owen Daniels, a man with one career playoff touchdown in seven games, catch two touchdowns in the first half.
But that is leaving this out: The Broncos outplayed them. The blame and the missed opportunities are one thing, but the Broncos unquestionably played well enough to win the game.
Obviously, the Patriots' offensive line -- particularly Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon and Josh Kline -- struggled mightily to contain Derek Wolfe, Von Miller, Malik Jackson, and most of all DeMarcus Ware. For that, some of Brady's issues can be understood.
But beside that, Brady had a bad game by his own exceptionally high standards. And on the interception to Miller, it was a bad decision, a bad throw, and a bad place on the field to do it. And it turned into a Denver touchdown just three plays later.
--The reason I would have kicked the field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 16-yard line with 6:03 left in the fourth is simple: They were down eight points.
You're taking a risk by going for it, and even if it pays off and you move the chains, you still:
- a) might end up in a fourth-and-9 on your next set of downs anyway, thus needing to kick a field goal, or
- b) need to score a touchdown (no easy shakes) and convert a two-point conversion (very difficult) just to tie the game.
In the risk-reward balance, going for it makes little sense … especially when even if their best-case scenario plays out (they tie the game), they'd still need to make a defensive stop just to force overtime.
The smart move is to kick the field goal, get the stop, then try again to get into the end zone for the win.
I understand the counterargument is that if you go for it, convert, then score the touchdown and make a stop on defense, you'd only need a field goal on your next position to win. But again, even if they picked up that yard on fourth-and-1, much work would remain to get into the end zone, and they may have ended up having to settle for a field goal anyway.
--Having two drives end with turnovers on downs deep in an opponent's territory in the final minutes of a crucial game just does not seem like a Bill Belichick thing to take place. Yet it did.
I said before the game that something just wasn't quite right.
Denver, man. For the Patriots, weird things happen in the city of Denver. Always.
--Even with all of these negatives, the Patriots still had the play to tie the game. And it was there to be made.
Brady was just locked on Julian Edelman, but really, both Rob Gronkowski and James White were borderline open/at least worth a shot on the two-point play.
--Also, as much as this could be seen as "letting them off the hook" or something like that … you have to marvel at what DeMarcus Ware did on the field. It looked like some JV coach was sneaking the varsity captain onto the field to get some reps. Either that, or Ware punched in the cheat code before kickoff. The guy had seven (7) quarterback hits. Seven.
It seemed like after the Patriots' coaching staff realized that Vollmer could not keep up, the strategy became to let Ware run free for 5 yards before getting a late shove to his shoulder pads to maybe throw him off course.
It was, simply, dominant. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. Just dominance.
--Remember when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning both ran for first downs on third-and-10 plays?
Yeah, me neither.
--I'd be remiss -- and, frankly, downright irresponsible -- if I went any further without mentioning the fact that Ed Hochuli explained what the word "backwards" means!
In real life! Ed said to himself, "You know, these people might not know what the concept of backwards means, but fortunately, I'll be their hero today."
He then explained:
"The pass was backward, therefore, the recovery by New England, gives New England the ball. The question is, the point from which the ball was released to the point that the ball is first touched or touched the ground. That was backward. It will be New England's ball. The clock stays the same. There are no timeouts charged. Additionally, the defender did not touch the pass in the air."
Ed Hochuli, ladies and gents. Ed Hochuli.
--All eyes were on the officiating, and antennae were raised early when Logan Ryan was flagged for pass interference on a play where it looked like Demaryius Thomas actually pushed off. But overall, the crew did a fine job. There's no reason for anyone in New England to feel cheated, despite so many in New England entering the weekend … expecting to feel cheated.
And save the hue and cry about Aqib Talib holding Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. The contact was so minor -- if you want that to be a penalty, then there are plenty of basketball games out there for you to watch. Plus, for all the complaints I heard about Talib holding Gronkowski, I heard fewer folks remark that Gronkowski pushed off before catching the Patriots' final touchdown. Same level of contact, which is to say neither was a penalty.
--Maybe this makes me a bad person … but I loved the T.J. Ward hit on Brandon Bolden. It's just a throwback to the days when football players actually hit each other. For that matter, the Broncos laid several licks on Patriots receivers that harkened back to the days when defensive backs could impact the game in a positive way for their team. Too often now, it seems like the best job that most defensive backs can do is to not blow the game. It's no fun.
And I have to think Ward knew what he was doing when torpedoed himself into Bolden on the 2-yard line. It's a 1-yard penalty, so it's worth it.
I know that makes me wrong. But I am what I am, folks.
--I also loved Ward's modified belly shirt. I'm a sucker for anything that reminds me of the '90s, I guess.
OK, things are getting weird. Let's move on.
--Jamie Collins struggled in coverage on the two Daniels touchdowns. On the first one, it looked like Collins cheated and thought Daniels would run a stick route, thereby letting Daniels break free in space. It was a very Bob Gronkowski defense from the Patriots.
On the second one, it looked like Collins guessed that Daniels would break his route toward the middle of the field. Instead, Daniels just stutter-stepped and continued up the right sideline, as Collins was left pirouetting by his lonesome.
--However -- however -- Collins made some awesome plays, namely his brick-wall stop of Ronnie Hillman on the Broncos' fourth play from scrimmage.
Just watch this play. If that didn't make you scream in amazement/horror/excitement, then again, you're watching the wrong sport.
--Poor Stephen Gostkowski. That's typically one happy guy. Remember his postgame press conference after the Giants game? That was a happy fellow.
And while he was obviously down on himself on Sunday for missing the PAT, he was a little harsh with the "I feel like I lost the game" thing. While yes, that one point proved to be a huge one at the end of the game. But it happened in the first quarter. Nearly 47 full minutes remained in the game after the missed PAT for the Patriots to make up for the lost point.
Ideally, yeah, you want to make your PATs, especially when you're the best of all time in that department. But "I feel like I lost the game" is just … harsh.
--Let's never lose sight of the fact that sports are crazy. I mean … Emmanuel Sanders caught this ball:
--As previously mentioned, much of Brady's struggles can be attributed to the relentless pressure he faced. After all:
Still, I'm still hung up on the first interception. There really wasn't much pressure; the Broncos rushed three and the O-line actually stood up to it, for the most part. Yet Brady made a little half jump-throw, tried to be real perfect with it, and threw it right into this. Miller wasn't exactly hiding.
It wasn't all that dissimilar to his final pass vs. Kansas City, which hit Tamba Hali in the chest. Brady got lucky that time, but not quite this time.
--That being said, I was impressed with Brady's confidence when he got the ball back following Denver's touchdown. He had the confidence to pull the trigger on this pass:
And he nailed it.
--Rob Gronkowski had a decent postseason. Fifteen receptions, 227 yards, three touchdowns. And he came up with a catch, somehow, on a fourth-and-10 like this:
And he did all that despite leg cramps.
--I don't know who this dude on the sideline was.
But if you handed me some crayons and asked me to draw a dude from Denver, that's probably what it would end up looking like.
--Even with that half-booty game plan in Miami in Week 17, Brady was asked to throw the ball 624 times in the regular season. The streak of quarterbacks throwing 600 or more pass attempts in a season and not winning a Super Bowl continues, and it's no coincidence. As much as it may be a passing league, balance is still a critical element of an offense.
Cam Newton, by the way, threw 496 passes this year. Peyton Manning threw 303 in 10 games, which averaged over 16 games becomes 485. Last year, Brady threw 582 passes.
The difference between 582 last year and 624 this year may not seem significant. But might the Patriots not have benefited from some balance on those third- and fourth-and-1's?
--If you think about it, putting forth a poor showing in a championship game is not an entirely new phenomenon for the Patriots. They stunk vs. San Diego in 2007, they were not great in either game against Baltimore in 2011 and 2012, they never really competed in Denver in 2013, and they didn't fare that much better in Denver in 2015. They managed to go 2-3 in those games, thanks to LaDainian Tomlinson and Billy Cundiff, so maybe that makes things better now ... maybe? No? No. OK. Look, I tried.
--Speaking of LaDainian Tomlinson, how about the fight of Demaryius Thomas? Great googily moogily. Manning gave that guy about a thousand chances to make a play. Thomas just seemed completely disinterested. At one point he caught a pass over the middle, but Malcolm Butler was able to jar it free using only two fingers.
Demaryius Thomas: two receptions, 12 yards, not interested.
--The Patriots went 2-for-15 on third down. Two-for-fifteen. It's really a miracle that they even had a chance to tie the game at the end. Think about it: not deferring, Belichick changing his outfit at halftime, Gostkowski missed field goal, Brady brain fart, no O-line, non-existent third down offense, tablets going out (!), and yet they came two yards shy of forcing overtime. Wild.
--Not sure when the appropriate time might be to drop this one, so I'll say it now: The Panthers are going to win by 50. And Cam Newton will smile and people will lose their minds and I will laugh and laugh and laugh because people are foolish.
--One time, Roger Goodell said this:
"I think we're at 39 rule changes over the last 10 years to make our game safer. They've had a dramatic impact on the game. We've seen reductions in concussions [by] 35 percent. We're seeing the rules protect the players from unnecessary injuries, and that's important."
In fact, he said that one month ago.
Then also this is something that happened:
So. Yeah. Keep paying that lip service, Rog.
--Not only would there have been an investigation if the tablets had gone out in Foxboro, but if a K-Ball boy ever signaled for a first down for the home team like this fella?
Hoooo, boy! Mike Kensil would have been down on that field faster than you could say "Integrity." Granted, when Kensil got down there, he'd probably find an NFL employee stealing footballs so that he could sell them for profit but oh whoops that was last year and I'm in the wrong AFC Championship Game. My bad.
--I understand why the Patriots had to change their philosophy and become a passing team. I understand that's why they switched from natural grass to synthetic turf in 2006. But don't you miss the days when they would be the team that wanted a field to look this lousy?
There's just something about being the team that is willing to play on a parking lot that's eminently more endearing than the team that would prefer a perfect track.
--Julian Edelman: "Tommy is a tough S.O.B. I wouldn't want to have any other guy in the huddle."
--Nobody had a better perspective on the loss than Malcolm Butler.
"I'm upset, but then again, not really," said Butler. "Everybody went out there and we played to the end. It came all the way down to the end, but that's just the nature of the game -- you win some, you lose some. We've just got to bounce back and come back next year strong. It came down to the end. I'm not upset. I am but I'm not, because I saw us out there fighting. I saw both teams fighting. Especially that we fought to the end, I can't ask for anything better."
Those are the comment of a dude who went from working at Popeye's to making a Super Bowl-winning play to becoming an NFL regular at one of the sport's most difficult positions. It's easy to understand why he's not devastated after a loss like that.
--I wish they had let Malcolm Butler fight the kicker, though. I would have watched.
--There are going to be a lot of people who harp relentlessly on the Patriots' losing in Miami in Week 17, therefore requiring that this game be played in Denver instead of New England. And that's fair, especially when you consider that the Patriots went into what is always the most difficult building in the league for them and lost only by two points.
However, I'm not sure that Sebastian Vollmer would have been able to block DeMarcus Ware in New England, In Canada, in his homeland of Germany, or on the moon. So let's not go too crazy with that one. A little crazy? OK. Too crazy? Hold your horses!
--So, the Patriots lost, and nobody around here is going to celebrate an AFC Championsip Game berth. And that's the way it should be. They don't hang AFC Finalist banners around here, and that's because expectations are always much higher than that.
Are those expectations unreasonable? Of course! But when you're accustomed to seeing the team win Super Bowls, how is anything else supposed to make you happy?
With that being established, there is still something to say about making the conference title game five years in a row and 10 times in 15 years. In the 15 years prior to 2001, the Patriots made exactly one conference title game. They had two total appearances prior to Belichick's arrival.
So as much as it might be brutal to have to spend the next two weeks being unable to hear endless praise heaped upon Peyton Manning, and for as much as Super Bowl trips are always fun, it's important to remember how good things really are right now.
--Plus, it's hard to say that this year's team fell short of where it should have gotten. Could they have done a couple of things right Sunday and won the game? Of course. But the Patriots were far from a juggernaut that played down to the competition. They were what they were -- a pretty good 12-4 team. They lost in Denver, they got blown out of their own building by the Eagles, the were outplayed by the Jets, and they learned that a half-effort against the Dolphins was not enough to win a game.
They were good, but they weren't great. And when you're good not great, you'll probably lose close games on the road more often than you win them.
--If you're a regular reader or if this is the first time, I'd like to thank you for reading. Football season is fun, but it would be a whole lot less fun if these ramblings, at time incoherent, weren't read. So thanks a bunch, enjoy the winter, and hey, it'll be mini-camp before you know it.
And until then, as always, Bill will be watching you.
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