Picked-up pieces from the second quarter of the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game:
1. More struggles in the run game. Center Ryan Wendell really had a tough time with Terrance Knighton (e.g. LeGarrette Blount for no gain, 6:09 remaining). When considering why the Patriots had a tough time generating positive momentum on the ground, the heart of the line of scrimmage seems like the right place to start. Knighton played very well. At 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds, he had a notable edge on the tale of the tape against Wendell (6-2, 300).
2. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano rotated in for Sealver Siliga to start the Broncos' third offensive series of the game and was attacked immediately with success on the first play of Denver's 94-yard touchdown march. With running back Knowshon Moreno running for 11 yards, Vellano was doubled initially by left guard Zane Beadles and center Manny Ramirez, and when end Chandler Jones took his rush too far up the field, it opened a huge running lane. That is one area to watch in the future with Vellano, who gives up size up front (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) and can sometimes get taken out of his gap rather easily.
3. Chandler Jones played strong against the run in the first quarter but struggled a bit to sustain in the second. After taking his rush too far upfield on a first-down play, there was a rare handoff to tight end Virgil Green on second-and-7 (12:16 remaining) in which Jones failed to wrap Green up in the backfield, perhaps surprised that he was tackling a 255-pound tight end instead of the 220-pound Moreno.
4. On the Broncos' long scoring drive, the Patriots' defense surrendered a third-and-9 (Kyle Arrington shaken by Wes Welker), third-and-1 (defensive holding on Logan Ryan), third-and-10 (Moreno 28-yard run against the dime defense/lighter d-line) and third-and-1 (short-yardage run against goal-line package). The 28-yard run came after linebacker Dont'a Hightower aligned to the right, as he was checking Moreno, who was to the left of Manning in the shotgun. With two deep safeties 13 yards off the line of scrimmage, there was a huge chunk of real estate between the first and third levels of the defense if Moreno could get through the line. When Hightower couldn't get over laterally in time to fill and defensive tackle Chris Jones was turned out, that's all it took. That play seems like a good example of Manning's smarts paying off -- calling the run against the pre-snap look and lighter dime defense. A missed tackle by safety Duron Harmon closer to the sticks didn't help the cause.
5, Linebacker Dane Fletcher showed up with a positive play in the goal-line defense -- tackle of Montee Ball for no gain (9:06 remaining) as he shot through the gap decisively and wrapped up. Fletcher only played six defensive snaps but made that one count, and then helped clean up on the next play, a 1-yard run in which the Patriots surrendered the first down in close but kept the Broncos out of the end zone. Fletcher was one of the linebackers closest in coverage on Jacob Tamme's ensuing 1-yard touchdown catch in the end zone.
6. Likewise, receiver Aaron Dobson showed up with a few positive plays: 27-yard catch over the middle on play-action (7:50 remaining) and blocking down field on Shane Vereen's 13-yard catch-and-run (6:42 remaining). That's one thing that showed up consistently on tape this year -- receivers blocking well downfield.
8. Solid tackling by defensive backs Devin McCourty (2-yard catch by Wes Welker) and Logan Ryan (4-yard catch by Knowshon Moreno) contributed to the defense holding the Broncos to a field goal late in the second quarter. It was the second hold of the first half and kept the game close. As much as the defense was giving up yards, and struggled on third down at times, I thought they made enough red zone stops against the No. 1-ranked red zone offense to give them a chance to stay in the game. The Broncos were 51-of-67 in the red zone during the regular season and finished 2-of-6 on Sunday.
9. Special teams weren't a big factor in the game -- the Patriots didn't have a kickoff return in seven attempts, a result of Denver kicker Matt Prater's strong leg and the thin Mile High air -- but punter Ryan Allen was excellent in his limited opportunities. Playing with a sprained AC joint, Allen would get a “game ball” if they were given out in losses (3 punts, 49.0 avg, 49.0 net, 3 inside the 20).