The Patriots walked into Sports Authority Field as the league's second highest scoring road team with 29.3 points per game and fifth most productive passing team with 262.9 yards per game, according to TeamRankings.
New England's offensive success is fueled, in large part, by the brilliance of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He is excellent at finding holes in the most menacing of defenses and devising blueprints for decisive wins where pundits see low-scoring slug fests.
However, against the Denver Broncos' top ranked pass defense, which came into the game allowing only 18.6 points per game and 183.5 passing yards per game, Brady and company struggled to find consistent success.
The "No Fly Zone" held the Patriots' offense to 16 points and a mere 177 passing yards, the lowest marks the unit has totaled under Tom Brady. Although the aerial attack was plagued by inaccurate passes, miscommunications, and dropped balls, the Broncos did more than their fair share to limit the passing game.
New England's ability to move the ball on Sunday relied heavily on the efficiency of the running game, which was carried by Dion Lewis' 95 yards on only 18 totes (5.3 yards per carry). On drives where the ground game couldn't get going, the offense usually struggled.
How could any defense contain a Tom Brady-led passing attack with and a diverse cast of weapons and the league's best offensive coordinator?
Allow me to explain.
Last year in the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos essentially shut down the Patriots' passing game by dropping eight defenders into coverage and relying on their star-studded pass rush to bring the heat against Brady and his patch-work offensive line. Their strategy was hugely successful; the Ageless Wonder was hit 20 times was clearly rattled all afternoon.
Denver implemented this strategy once again on Sunday, but Brady did more to hurt the offense than did the opposition. The quarterback was delivering errant passes and throwing short of the sticks on third down while facing little to no actual pressure through the first quarter of play.
Brady eventually settled down after being held without a completion in the first quarter, and the offensive line actually held their own. However, these improvements this only highlighted the excellence of the Broncos' pass defense. They seemed to be glued to receivers' hips in man coverage and quickly closed any holes in zone.
Brady was often forced to hold onto the ball longer than desired and shuffle through his reads to mixed, usually negative, results.
Avoiding Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr on the outside was clearly part of New England's game plan. As much as Brady has grown to trust new targets Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, he knows that they aren't in the same universe as Denver's dynamic duo.
Harris and Talib are Pro Football Focus' first and second ranked cornerbacks, respectively, meaning Denver boasts two legitimate shut-down players at the position.
Brady only targeted a wide receiver or tight-end matched up against a Denver cornerback when the offensive player was lined up in the slot or in a reduced split from a stack formation.
The (necessary) decision to abandon the outside passing game severely handcuffed the offense and forced Brady to look elsewhere when throwing the football.
Receiving back James White against backup linebackers Todd Davis and Corey Nelson seemed like the perfect mismatch to exploit, as Denver's linebacking corp has been far-and-away the weakest unit on their defense.
Unfortunately, aside from two third-down conversions, Brady and White simply couldn't get anything substantial going for most of the contest. Electric dual-threat Dion Lewis' workload as a receiver was also limited, as most of his contributions came in the running game.
Combine these limitations with Bennett's reserved role as a receiver, which could have either been injury- or game plan-related, and Brady was only left with one legitimate target in the passing game: Julian Edelman.
KEYING IN ON EDELMAN
Edelman is a difficult player to defend because the Patriots move him around so much. He can be lined up on the outside against a cornerback on one snap and in the slot against a linebacker or safety the next.
The latter was a match-up that it appeared New England liked, as all but three of Edelman's 12 targets came when he was lined up the slot. He was only covered by a cornerback on four of those targets.
Not many teams can handle these mismatches, but the Broncos had a solid game plan to limit the Kent State product and force Brady to look away from his favorite target.
Edelman makes his bones running option routes from the slot that consist of him running about three yards upfield before breaking right or left, depending on his defender's leverage, or sitting in a hole in zone coverage.
DEN was very well prepared for Edelman's option routes from the slot in empty looks. Lotta plays where he was defended inside-out by ILBs pic.twitter.com/cMumRGWQ08— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 19, 2016
Another example of DEN taking away the option routes Edelman is notorious for. Surprised NE didn't try more stop-n-go's like on Develin rec pic.twitter.com/5FhVf2qimK— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) December 19, 2016
To counter this, Denver tasked two defenders, often Davis and Nelson, with double-covering Edelman to take away his options horizontally. The defenders were also in such close proximity that Brady had very little room to squeeze the football into if Edelman sat between them.
Jules was still able to find some daylight on crossing routes against man coverage and through clever use of motion, but overall the Broncos did a very good job limiting TD Patriots' chain-mover. This made it difficult for New England to convert third downs and mount scoring drives without favorable field position.