The New England Patriots 2013 season is over following a 26-16 loss in the AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos. The Patriots had a great season, and even staged another mini-comeback in this one, but the Broncos were simply too much as the Patriots were outcoached and outplayed completely in this one.
There are a lot of reasons the Patriots didn't come out victorious in this one, but here are five things that went wrong:
1. Aqib Talib going down with a knee and rib injury in the second quarter. The Patriots literally didn't stop the Broncos from scoring once after Talib went down. Demaryius Thomas abused Alfonzo Dennard. Like last year's AFC Championship, this was a huge turning point.
2. Peyton Manning was Peyton Manning. You can't discredit Manning at all after this one. He simply shredded the Patriots secondary. New England stayed in sub-packages the entire game and often ran a cover five to take away the deep ball. Manning was more than happy to take what the Patriots gave him underneath, and made the most of his down-the-field opportunities as well. Manning was the best quarterback in the NFL this season, and he certainly backed up that notion on the field today.
3. No pass rush. Peyton Manning had all the time in the world to throw the football today. The Patriots chose to mostly rush with their front four, with very few blitzes called. The problem is, if you're going to go that route, the players up front need to execute and put pressure on the quarterback. The Broncos won the battle up front and the Patriots could only put one pressure on Peyton Manning all game. You're not going to beat Peyton Manning with that type of performance.
4. Bad Mistakes at bad times. The Patriots had some opportunities in this game, but just made mistakes at the most critical moments. A few that stand out: Michael Hoomanawanui offensive pass interference on a third down in the first quarter pushes the Patriots out of field goal position, Tom Brady sacked on a 3rd down inside the 30 in 2nd quarter holds the Patriots to a field goal, Brady sacked on a 4th down with the team driving in the 3rd quarter, etc. Quarterback Tom Brady wasn't particularly sharp and missed some throws that could have resulted in points, but this game was more about the performance of the players around Brady than Brady holding the team back himself. Brady was average. But unfortunately, average Tom Brady wasn't enough for the Patriots today.
5. Vereen 2-point conversion fails. The Patriots looked like they might have been putting together another improbable comeback, with Tom Brady leading the Patriots to touchdowns on back-to-back 4th quarter drives. However, with the Patriots down ten and going for two in order to make it a one score game, they went with a Shane Vereen draw which they couldn't convert. It was a very conservative play call and its failure effectively ended any hopes of a Patriots comeback.
While the end result of this game is disappointing, this loss feels a little bit different than prior playoff exits for the Patriots. This football team had a heck of a season. They didn't have a lot of talent, but they were a team. There was never any quit to this squad, and they kept scrapping and fighting even until the end in this one. It might be hard to see it now, but this Patriots team was special.
This Patriots team has a lot of improvements to make, which is a good thing. If the Patriots can continue to play with the fight they did in 2013 and they fill some of the holes along the defensive line, at receiver, safety, and the interior line, they will be right back in the thick of things in 2014.