Undermanned or not, the Patriots were simply beat by a much better team
All of the stars were aligned for the New England Patriots on a sunny, 65 degree day in Denver in late January. The Pats were yet again in the AFC Championship game, just one win away from booking their ticket to their 6th Super Bowl in the Belichick-Brady era. The football gods gave us a 15th version of the legendary Brady-Manning rivalry, this time with so much on the line. What's not to love?
However, as the clock struck 0:00 a little after 5:30 pm, the fact of the matter was simple; the Denver Broncos flat out beat the New England Patriots, in every aspect of the game.
The Patriots were flat. The offense couldn't sustain drives, and the defense couldn't get off the field.The gameplan Broncos coach John Fox put together was more effective than Bill Belichick's. Plain and simple. An offense that transformed into a power running team was absolutely shut down, running just 16 times for a mere 64 yards. The resurgent LeGarrette Blount, who exploded last week vs the Colts, had 5 carries for 6 yards.
Peyton Manning shredded the Patriots defense, getting rid of the ball faster than he can say "Omaha" while throwing for 400 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was sacked 0 times, and knocked down 0 times as well.
Tom Brady said it best. In his weekly radio interview Monday morning with WEEI, Brady said "They were pretty flawless...We couldn't force them into making any bad plays on either side of the ball."
The most astounding statistic from Sunday's game in my opinion was time of possession. The Broncos had the ball for 35:44, the Patriots for just 24:16. When your defense is on the field for long periods of time, and the offense is on for very short periods of time, it doesn't normally bode well for a football team. Denver absolutely, flat out controlled the game and manhandled the Patriots. A 15-play, 93 yard, 7 minute scoring drive to start the second quarter is evidence of that. The Patriots only had two possessions in the entire second quarter. Two.
Notice a common theme from this game yet? The Broncos were just better than the Patriots, and absolutely deserved to win and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Many people will say that this team overachieved, that they shouldn't have even been in the position they were in in the first place. That may be true. The Pats played most of the season and the entire playoffs with key impact players such as Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly all watching from the sidelines. The Patriots lost Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead to free agency, released Brandon Lloyd, and obviously had their former star tight end Aaron Hernandez rotting in jail on Sunday.
It is a valid argument to state those facts when discussing the 2013 Patriots. But when you are 60 minutes away from a trip to New Jersey, none of that matters. You have to get the job done with what you have, and the Patriots didn't do that.
A key play in the game came in the second quarter, when former Patriot Wes Welker came across the middle on a pick play and layed out cornerback Aqib Talib, knocking him out of the rest of the game. New England coach Bill Belichick called the play "one of the worst plays I've seen", stating that "It was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib. No attempt to get open". Without question, the absence of Talib was certainly felt by the Patriots defense. Much of Belichick's defensive schemes surround around Talib, and without him on the field, the much shorter Alfonzo Dennard was forced to cover the 6'3" Demaryius Thomas, who scorched the Patriots secondary for 7 catches, 134 yards and touchdown.
Yet another tipping point for the Pats was in the first quarter, when quarterback Tom Brady, after a beautiful play action fake, missed a completely wide open Julian Edelman running a post across the field. If Brady delivered the ball accurately, it without question would have been a touchdown, and the Patriots would have taken a 7-3 lead. Instead, Brady overthrew Edelman by 2-3 yards and the Patriots went on to punt.
In the biggest game of the season when it all mattered most, the Patriots just didn't get the job done. No excuses. It just wasn't their day.
Nonetheless, that is football. Any team can beat any team on any given day, and you have to bring your A-game each and every week. Losses happen. Injuries happen. Miscues, errors and mistakes happen, and there is nothing else you can do as a team besides tip your cap, take the loss like a man, and move on.
The 2013 Patriots were an extraordinary bunch. This team was the most mentally tough team in New England in recent memory. Coach Bill Belichick stated he was "proud to be their coach". The Patriots have nothing to hang their heads about. They played their hearts out all season and came within one win from a Super Bowl, and got beat by a better team to end their season. With the adversity this team faced within the past year, their performance this season is actually something to admire.
As heads turn to next season, the Patriots still have something to be fired up about. While this season-ending loss absolutely leaves a bitter taste in their mouth, I believe New England will be right back in the same position they were this year, but better.
The Patriots were the second youngest team in the NFL this season. Injured players will be healthy again. The dynamic Rob Gronkowski, who single-handedly ignites the Patriots offense, hopefully will be ready by the season opener. Tom Brady is still as good as he has ever been, and with another offseason to work with receivers such as Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Danny Amendola, and free-agent-to-be Julian Edelman, their offense could be as dynamic as years past. Bill Belichick once again has a plethora of draft picks, and with a few free agent signings to bolster both sides of the ball, there is no reason not to believe the Patriots wont be a force to be reckoned with next year.
As the book on the 2013 New England Patriots closes, the fact of the matter is simple. Undermanned or not, the Patriots did not play well on Sunday and were beat by a better team.
But if this team is back in the AFC Championship game next year as well, don't be surprised. Watch out.