New England Patriots: 2014 Championship Game NWE-DEN

Snaps: Edelman with ironman finish

January, 20, 2014
DENVER -- A look at the snaps played by skill-position players in the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game:

QB Tom Brady -- 59 of 59
WR Julian Edelman -- 59 of 59
TE Michael Hoomanawanui -- 49 of 59
WR Danny Amendola -- 41 of 59
RB Shane Vereen -- 41 of 59
WR Austin Collie -- 37 of 59
WR Aaron Dobson -- 22 of 59
TE Matthew Mulligan -- 13 of 59
FB James Develin -- 12 of 59
RB Stevan Ridley -- 10 of 59
RB LeGarrette Blount -- 8 of 59
WR Matthew Slater -- 3 of 59

(Penalties included. Two-point conversion included.)

ANALYSIS: Edelman's importance to the offense is reflected in the fact he never left the field in the most important game of the season. He gave the team everything he had. ... Dobson, a rookie receiver, was obviously limited with a foot injury and was managed carefully. The beneficiary of his absence was Collie, who rose up to the challenge with a strong performance. ... Amendola played too many snaps to go without a catch. He had the one drop. ... At running back, it was a rotation with the big backs Blount and Ridley, but they hardly played because of the way the game unfolded and the Patriots were forced into more of a passing game. With that, Vereen took the majority of snaps at the position. ... The 59 snaps were a season-low. The previous low was 63, against the Bengals on Oct. 6.

Long story: Brady's misses deep costly

January, 19, 2014
Tom Brady Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesThe Patriots dug themselves a hole that Tom Brady was unable to get them out of.
DENVER -- Tom Brady and the deep ball. When considering where things fell short for the New England Patriots in their 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, it’s one of the places to start.

The resilient Patriots dug themselves an early hole, never could find their way out of it, and the play that gave them the best chance to do so is one that is going to be tough for Brady to live with this offseason.

The long ball to receiver Julian Edelman was there late in the first quarter. Brady just missed it, and in a game of this magnitude with a near-perfect Peyton Manning on the other sideline, a miscue like that can be a difference-maker.

“I wish I would have made that,” Brady lamented of the one of the turning points of the game. “I just overthrew him.”

Between that play, which would have set the Patriots up to at least tie the game at 3-3 late in the first quarter, and cornerback Aqib Talib injuring his knee on the next long Broncos scoring drive and not returning, it was a double-barreled blow the team never could overcome. Brady airmailing open receiver Austin Collie late in the second quarter, when Collie had found a seam up the right sideline against a Cover-2 defensive shell, also cost the team a chance at possibly stealing three points.

So what’s up with Brady and the deep ball?

To some, this won’t come as a news flash. It hasn’t been a strength all season, with Brady’s 21.4 completion percentage on throws 25 yards or more ranking him tied for 31st in the NFL this season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information.

But there was a notable difference between what we’ve seen most of the season -- a lack of consistent separation from pass-catchers not giving Brady clean windows in which to throw -- and what unfolded Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

Edelman was wide open, having lined up in the right slot before running a vertical route up the middle of the field and cutting it out toward the left sideline 40 yards downfield. Safety Mike Adams was five yards behind in the rear-view mirror.

And Brady himself had plenty of time, the result of selling a hard play-action off the right side of the line, as there wasn’t a Bronco within five yards of him as he reset his feet and overthrew Edelman by about five yards. Brady’s reaction said it all as he immediately slapped his hands on top of his helmet.

Collie had also found a rather large opening across midfield that could have helped set up a long half-ending field goal in Denver’s thin air, where kicker Stephen Gostkowski was banging them through from 58 yards in pregame warmups.

Would the plays have made a difference in the final outcome? Perhaps not, as the Broncos outplayed the Patriots (a 35:44 to 24:16 time of possession edge is decisive) with everyone from head coach Bill Belichick to Brady acknowledging that the team that deserved to win did so.

But on a day when opportunities for big plays were sparse, the overthrows loomed large.

“When you play good teams, the margin for error is slim all day,” said Brady, who finished 24 of 38 for 277 yards and one touchdown. “We dug ourselves a pretty big hole there. I think this is a resilient tough team. We just got beat by a team that played really well.”

The Patriots, after putting together three of their best games of the season leading into the conference championship, didn’t. The Broncos’ run defense played a large role in that, limiting the effective ground-and-pound approach that had transformed the Patriots’ attack in recent weeks. The Patriots rushed for just 64 yards on 16 carries.

So that left the Patriots in a similar spot as they were in Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, as well as last year’s AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. They were forced to go to the air.

The difference between the two passing attacks was stark, with Manning outdueling Brady in the 15th installment of their terrific personal rivalry (Brady is now 10-5 in those games). Manning sought out Brady immediately on the field and later relayed that Brady was classy in his remarks.

“I just wished him good luck. I have a lot of respect for him,” Brady revealed. “He’s a great player and competitor. He played great today.”

Meanwhile, this wasn’t Brady’s best, the inability to connect on the long ball the big downer.

Leftover Patriots nuggets from Denver

January, 19, 2014
DENVER -- Gathering together some leftover notes from Sunday's AFC Championship Game:

Third-down struggles: The New England Patriots struggled to defend the Denver Broncos on third down, allowing them to convert on seven of 13 tries. "You can't win when you can't get off the field," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said of the woes. "Again, it was just basic fundamental football. You've got to get off the field and they do a good job of keeping the sticks moving with various formations and patterns they run with good receivers and a good tight end."

Pass rush bagel: Another area the Patriots struggled in was generating pressure on Peyton Manning. They didn't register a single sack of Manning and pressured him just three times in 43 dropbacks (according to ESPN Stats & Information), giving him far too much time to settle into his throws. Finding another pass-rusher could be a top offseason priority.

Long drives for Denver: The Broncos were able to sustain long drives on Sunday, as their two touchdown drives accounted for 173 yards on 14:09 of game time and 28 plays. Those kind of sustained drives can leave a defense deflated, particularly in the thin air of Denver.

The day after: The Patriots traveled home Sunday night, with the team wrapping up the season on Monday. Coach Bill Belichick will conduct a news conference at 9 a.m. ET, with players addressing the media from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Allen toughs it out, performs well: Credit punter Ryan Allen for a strong day, as he bounced back from an injury last Saturday night to punt three times, all landing inside the 20-yard line. He averaged 49 yards per punt and did not allow a single punt return.

Edelman logs big day: While some of his production came late in the game, wide receiver Julian Edelman capped an incredible season with a 10-catch, 89-yard effort and another score. He was a standout on offense all year long.

Edelman: 'Proud to be part of team'

January, 19, 2014
DENVER -- Receiver Julian Edelman had one of the more emotional postgame interviews in the Patriots' locker room following the team's 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. At times, it looked like he was fighting back tears.

"I'm very proud to be part of this team," he said in a hushed tone. "We fought through a lot of adversity. There were a lot of ups and downs. It's just unfortunate that it had to end this way. Not the way we wanted to."

Edelman, who capped off a stellar 2013 season with a 10-catch, 89-yard performance, credited the Broncos by saying, "they flat-out beat us."

"It was pretty tough [out there]," he added. "Season ended. We're done. ... It was a pretty special group. Everyone fights to the very end. It just didn't go our way."

As for his future, the emotions were too raw for Edelman, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent March 11.

"I'm not even thinking about that right now," he said. "I'm thinking about the fellas in this locker room, our coaches, all the hard work that we put in. I'll think about that later."

Blount, Pats run game goes nowhere

January, 19, 2014
DENVER -- Employing a game-plan offense, the New England Patriots’ strategy each week revolves around identifying an opposing team’s weaknesses and aiming to exploit them.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Stevan Ridley (5 carries, 17 yards) and the Patriots' run game was held in check by the Broncos.
On paper, the Denver Broncos’ defensive weakness was their secondary. Throwing the football seemed like a natural avenue for the Patriots to take on Sunday.

But with the sensational success of the running game of late -- catalyzed by between-the-tackles rushing by LeGarrette Blount -- sticking with the ground-and-pound approach seemed plausible too.

On Sunday, throwing the ball just wasn’t enough, and the ground game was unable to penetrate what has proven to be a stingy Denver run defense down the stretch.

“They were good against the run, good against the pass,” guard Logan Mankins said after the game. “They just took advantage of our offense today.”

Over the past three games entering Sunday, the Patriots had averaged 34.3 carries for 200.3 yards between the tackles, with Blount playing a leading role and scoring eight times during that stretch.

The production from the running game shriveled on Sunday, as Blount had four rushes for 6 yards between the tackles, a far cry from his 18.3 rushes for 130 yards on average over the past three games.

As a team, the Patriots weren’t much better, finishing with 64 yards on 16 carries for the day.

It was just one area of struggle on a day that the Patriots didn’t have the horses to keep up with the Broncos.

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

January, 19, 2014

DENVER -- Sharing thoughts from the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game:

What it means: Season over. The Broncos deserved to win, as the Patriots didn’t bring their A-game. Some losses can be tough to digest when it feels like a game slips away from a team, but this one was different. The Broncos controlled most of the action.

Big-picture view: As time passes, the 2013 campaign will be viewed favorably in terms of the resolve the Patriots showed after significant personnel losses, but that won’t ease the sting that coaches and players will feel after this loss. They missed a great opportunity, and the surprise, from this viewpoint, was that it was the team’s best player, quarterback Tom Brady, whose mistakes hurt most in the AFC Championship Game.

Brady’s deep ball off the mark: Brady will have a long offseason after missing two deep balls in this game -- in the first quarter to Julian Edelman and in the second quarter to Austin Collie -- as there was separation and an open window in which to deliver the football both times. The throw to Edelman, in particular, was a huge play in the game. Brady's struggles with the deep ball were a big storyline Sunday.

Talib injury a game-changer: One of the turning points of the game came in the second quarter on the Broncos’ impressive 15-play, 93-yard touchdown drive that ate up 7:01: Cornerback Aqib Talib was injured when Broncos receiver Wes Welker ran into him over the middle. It sure looked like a penalty on Welker, although there were split opinions among officials-turned-media-members in the Twitter-verse on the play. Without Talib, the Patriots struggled to match up to the Broncos’ passing game. If Brady's struggles with the long ball were storyline 1A, Talib's injury was 1B.


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Stock watch: Running game, down -- The ground-and-pound approach that had transformed the Patriots’ offense in the three games leading into this one was essentially extinguished. Some credit goes to the Broncos’ defense for that, as the Patriots' offense was turned into a one-dimensional attack. The defense did its part with some stingy play in the red zone and on third down to win in some key situations, but the offense, similar to losses in the Super Bowl (2007, 2011) and AFC Championship Game (2012), was the unit that didn't hold up its end of the bargain.

What’s next: It’s on to free agency and the NFL draft. Key free agents for the Patriots include Talib, Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots have draft picks in the following rounds: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 6, 7. The fifth-rounder went to Philadelphia in this year’s trade for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga. The extra sixth is from Philadelphia as part of that deal.

Quick-hit thoughts from first quarter

January, 19, 2014
DENVER -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Denver Broncos 3-0 in the AFC Championship Game. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Pats' O starts slow. The Patriots' offense needed just one play to find the end zone last Saturday, but the start wasn't quite the same today, as the offense went three and out on its first drive and punted on each of the first two drives. Some notable personnel factors: Aaron Dobson is playing some in two-receiver sets, LeGarrette Blount once again is handling lead back duties and both Matthew Slater and Austin Collie have been targeted on third-down plays.

2. Perfect conditions. The weather is idyllic in Denver today, with a temperature of 61 degrees at kickoff. There's hardly a cloud in the sky, and there's minimal wind. A strong glare has made things difficult on returners fielding punts deep.

3. Broncos open the scoring. The Broncos got on the board first with a field goal late in the first quarter. The drive was helped by a long completion from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas on a third and 10 play. The Patriots were able to hold the Broncos from the 10-yard line, however, forcing the field goal from Matt Prater.

4. Patriots' offense driving. The Patriots' offense generated a little bit of buzz at the end of the quarter, crossing into Denver territory. The second quarter will open with the Patriots facing a fourth down from Denver's 39.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (offensive pass interference).