New England Patriots: Denver Broncos
DENVER -- There is no revisionist history from this viewpoint when it comes to receiver Wes Welker’s knockout hit on cornerback Aqib Talib in the second quarter of Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
This is what was written at halftime: “The missed penalty call on Welker was most egregious from this viewpoint.”
Mike Pereira, now an analyst on Fox, disagreed. Former official Jim Daopoulos, who now provides analysis for NBC, looked at it differently.
The two former officials were making their determination based on the timing of when the ball was delivered. If it's already delivered, it's not a penalty. If the ball hasn't been delivered, it is a penalty.
We can debate that as it's a judgment call, but what Bill Belichick said Monday morning is something altogether different.
Belichick's judgment call is that Welker, whose relationship with his former coach was hot and cold at times, deliberately intended to take out Talib.
I have a tough time going there.
It starts with my feeling that intent to injure isn't in Welker’s DNA, especially after what he went through with his torn ACL four years ago.
I watched the play over and over again Monday morning, and this is the conclusion I came to: Welker's job on the play, as he ran a crossing route from right to left, was clearly to rub out Talib as he was trailing Demaryius Thomas on a crossing route underneath from left to right. These plays are commonplace, as Greg Bedard of TheMMQB.com wrote last week, and the Patriots themselves run them often.
In fact, if you listen closely enough to the audio of CBS' broadcast feed, the Patriots seemed to know it was coming because you almost hear a defensive player saying "Watch the pick!" before the snap.
Welker never looked for the ball before making contact with Talib. He also veered slightly upfield to pick off Talib.
I think it should have been penalized.
But do I really think Welker was intending to injure Talib? I don't.
And that, like the debate over whether a flag should have been thrown, is a judgment call.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One week after an entertaining game with a new-school/old-school quarterback duel between Cam Newton and Tom Brady, it's pure old-school this week.
Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady.
Need we say much more?
This is one of those games that is circled the day the NFL schedule is released in April, and as we know, there is much more than just the quarterbacks to highlight when dissecting a matchup between the visiting Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. Receiver Wes Welker, for one, adds another intriguing storyline as he returns to town for the first time since signing with the Broncos this year.
The Broncos (9-1) are the class of the AFC, and arguably the entire NFL, after knocking the Kansas City Chiefs from the unbeaten ranks this past Sunday. Now comes a tough test against a resilient but depleted 7-3 Patriots club that needs a victory to keep pace in the overall AFC playoff race.
Here to break it down for us are NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jeff Legwold (Broncos):
Reiss: Jeff, let's get right to the news before we dive into the X's and O's. I expect Welker to receive rousing cheers from the fans here because he was a beloved player from 2007 to 2012. Most Patriots fans, as I sense it, didn't want to see him go and hold the team more responsible for the departure. Any chance Welker's “homecoming” actually doesn't happen because of the concussion he sustained?
Legwold: Mike, because Welker was removed from Sunday night's game with a concussion, he is subject to the league protocol. That means he won't be allowed to practice fully until Friday at the earliest and then only if he has passed a baseline test early in the week. The Broncos have said they expect him to be OK and he will obviously want to play, but Friday would be the first real litmus test of their plans with him. Welker has dealt with some ankle issues this season as well, but he has had every bit the impact in the offense the Broncos had hoped to have when they signed him. He has lined up much of the time in the slot, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase has also put him out wide and he scored a touchdown earlier this season on a route that began with Welker in the backfield. Manning knows why Brady liked throwing Welker the ball so much.
That said, people here asked Welker plenty about his departure and while he's said all the right things, what were Brady's thoughts on the matter?
Reiss: No question that he was personally disappointed. Welker remains one of his closest friends. I think Brady even said it at one point, you go through an initial period of dealing with the emotions and then you move forward and focus on the task at hand. That's part of what makes Brady the great competitor that he is, the ability to compartmentalize things and have that laser-like singular focus. There were quite a few growing pains for the passing offense through the first eight games, but it has looked better the past two contests. It's no coincidence that the results have improved as tight end Rob Gronkowski has rounded into form, receiver Danny Amendola seems to be taking steps forward and running back Shane Vereen has been activated from the injured reserve list.
The Patriots are going to need to put up some points to help a depleted defense. So what type of defense can they expect to see from the Broncos?
Legwold: Jack Del Rio is the Broncos' interim head coach these days after John Fox's open-heart surgery earlier this month, but Del Rio is still calling the defense on game day as well. The players like and respect Del Rio and have responded to him since his arrival before the 2012 season. Del Rio uses everybody in uniform on game day -- he's used nine different defensive backs in varying roles in the defense in some games, for example -- and overall he's aggressive. He likes to change things up in the pass rush and match up on the outside with plenty of man coverages. It is no accident the past three games have been the best for the Broncos' defense after a rough start to the season in pass defense, particularly with so many teams trying to play catch-up against the Broncos. But the past three games are also the first Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller have played at the same time. Miller missed six games with a drug policy suspension and Woodyard then missed two games with a neck injury he suffered against Dallas. With them both in there, Del Rio can do more things. The Broncos know they have to get some pressure in the middle of the field against Brady and get the receivers out of their routes if they can.
Defensively, how concerned are the Patriots about the health of their own secondary at the moment?
Reiss: Very concerned, and it's why I thought they might have made a more aggressive push for free-agent safety Ed Reed when he became available last week. Especially in a game like this, it's not a good time to be short in the secondary, and it's a banged-up group for the Patriots. All three of their top cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (groin), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) -- are dealing with ailments that will affect their availability and/or effectiveness in some form. Starting safety Steve Gregory (broken thumb) missed Monday's loss but returned to practice Wednesday and that probably means he will play. So that helps them a bit. Still, this has the potential to be a bad matchup for the Patriots this week based on the health snapshot.
If they could order up some bone-chilling temperatures for a Sunday prime-time game in late November, maybe it helps a bit. But is there any reason to think, based on what you've seen, that would even slow down Manning at this point?
Legwold: Folks both near and far have talked about Manning's wobbly passes all season. His ankle and whether or not he wears a glove on his throwing hand are always cause for a this-just-in bulletin. In the end, bad ankle and all, he leads the league in completions (286), yards passing (3,572) and passing touchdowns (34). Those 34 touchdowns still top the number of touchdowns scored by any other team in the league -- New Orleans, Seattle and Cincinnati have 33 touchdowns overall. After four neck surgeries he's a pitcher now, working the corners. He throws the fastball when he needs it and while it may not always be as pretty as people would like, he gets the ball where it needs to be. How he plays in the cold is still a bit of a question mark given his performance on a historically cold day here in the playoff loss, but this Broncos offense has a lot of ways to come at a defense and the only real way to slow Manning down is to get consistent pressure in the middle of the field so he can't work his progressions in the comfort of the pocket.
This is the 17th time, including three playoff games, Bill Belichick has faced Manning since Belichick accepted the New England job. That's a lot of road traveled. How do you think he wants to defend this offense as compared to how he's attacked Manning in the past?
Reiss: Personnelwise, we can expect the Patriots to be in their sub packages (either nickel or dime) for the majority of the game. That's a contrast from what we saw Monday night when the Patriots mostly played their base defense against the power-running Panthers. In this game, when factoring in the Broncos' three-receiver offense and the view that tight end Julius Thomas is probably going to be seen more as a receiver, I'd project them to go much lighter in the box and almost dare the Broncos to run against them. Of course, the other factor with Manning is maintaining discipline pre-snap and not tipping intentions, which is what opponents often say about facing Brady. If Manning has the answers to the test before the snap, it's going to be tough to win. He's just too smart. So those are some general thoughts on a defensive approach as I think the Patriots will have to get creative to cover up for some of their personnel issues, and take some chances on third down.
The Patriots really struggled on third down against the Panthers, who were 8-of-11. Offensively in that game, the Patriots didn't cash in enough in the red zone. Those are two big areas of focus for them. What are the top areas the Broncos are talking about for improvement?
Legwold: Offensively, they've surrendered just 13 sacks -- Detroit's Matthew Stafford is the only quarterback to have started every game who has been sacked less than Manning -- but the Broncos want to limit the hits. Manning was not sacked or barely touched for that matter by the Chiefs this past Sunday, but the Broncos need that to continue to keep Manning's ankle from getting any worse. They also, even as they line up in their beloved three-wide receiver set (75 snaps against the Chiefs including penalty plays), have to find a way to run with some more efficiency to keep the play-action game at least on the minds of the defenders. To that end the Broncos had a season-high 21 running plays out of the shotgun against Kansas City. Defensively they do plenty of good work only to watch it unravel in one big play. Last season they surrendered 38 pass plays of at least 20 yards in the entire regular season. This season that total is already 46. They've been better over the past month -- they haven't given up a pass play of at least 31 yards in the past four games -- but the trend has to continue.
In terms of big-play threats, where is Gronkowski in his return in terms of his health and performance right now?
Reiss: I'd say somewhere between a Half-Gronk and the Full-Gronk, so maybe about 80 percent. He's getting closer to a full workload after playing 51 of 79 snaps in his debut versus the Jets, followed by 33 of 65 against Miami, 48 of 75 against Pittsburgh and 63 of 72 on Monday night against the Panthers (snaps included penalties). Since Gronkowski didn't have a preseason, we've reached the point now where he's had what is essentially a preseason within the regular season. The past two games, in particular, things have seemed to click.
One of the fun parts about these “Double Coverage” assignments is to learn something about the opposing team that maybe slips beneath the everyday radar. Do you have a player or X factor that might be easy to overlook?
Legwold: Easy for the Broncos because he's often camouflaged by his more famous teammates, but the fact Woodyard has never been voted to the Pro Bowl says a lot of his peers just aren't doing their homework when they fill out the ballots. Last season Woodyard was the first player since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to finish a season with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions. And he wasn't even voted as a Pro Bowl alternate despite being just the 12th player to put together that stat line since the sack because an official statistic in 1982. Woodyard is an every-down player in an age of specialists, a leader with top-end work ethic and elite speed to the ball. Mike Shanahan, who kept Woodyard as an undrafted rookie in '08 -- Shanahan's last year in Denver -- called him “everything you want in a football player.” The teams that don't pay attention to him have a long day on offense.
From your end -- and I know everyone is going to talk about the quarterbacks -- but is there a player, or players, who can make a difference in this one other than Brady?
Reiss: I'll go with the returners on special teams -- Julian Edelman (punt) and Josh Boyce (kickoff). This is one of those games where the Patriots are going to need all the points they can get to keep up with Manning and the NFL's top-scoring team, and maybe special teams can chip in. The inclusion of the speedy Boyce as the primary kickoff returner caught my eye Monday night, even though he didn't have any opportunities. The ball likely won't be carrying as far on Sunday night in Foxborough, Mass., so Boyce should have a greater chance to make an impact. Edelman is excellent in his role as a punt returner. For the Patriots to win, they will need to play a good complementary game and special teams are a big part of that.
The Broncos had waived Barrett with the intention of placing him on season-ending injured reserved, as Barrett was scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery.
Barrett entered the league as a seventh-round draft choice of the Broncos and his primary contributions have come on special teams. As a rookie in Denver, he was coached by current Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien.
After further review, handing out three stars and three non-stars from Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss to the Broncos:
No. 1 star: Vince Wilfork. Defensive tackle helps control the middle of the line, totals five tackles, and makes third-and-1 stop early in third quarter.
No. 2 star: Chris Hanson. Punter rebounds from last week with a solid effort five punts, 44.4 average, 42.4 net, and two inside the 20.
No. 3 star: Offensive line/pass protection. Outside of Logan Mankins' costly mistake on Vonnie Holliday, the protection was solid against the Broncos, who entered the game leading the NFL with 15 sacks.
And three players on the opposite end of the spectrum:
Logan Mankins: Left guard doesn't win one-on-one battle against Holliday, which results in a strip sack, and also has a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushes the team out of field-goal range.
Tully Banta-Cain/Derrick Burgess: Edge rushers don't generate enough pressure out of the standard four-man rush to help the secondary, which was thrown on with relative ease (Kyle Orton had his second 300-yard passing game of his career).
Leigh Bodden: Cornerback finishes with team-high 11 tackles, which reflects that receivers were often catching the ball in his area of the field.
DENVER -- The Broncos opened the game using the Wildcat formation, with running back Knowshon Moreno taking the direct snap from quarterback four times on the opening drive.
Moreno's first carry out of the Wildcat went for 12 yards. In all, Moreno had 23 yards on five Wildcat carries.
Why the Wildcat?
"New England is the type of team that is going to give you a different type of look every single time," quarterback Kyle Orton explained. "We thought that we could kind of settle them down a little bit and get them in some looks where we could tell what was going on. It worked for the most part."
The Wildcat caught the Patriots off guard a bit, the team calling a timeout to get things straightened out. It was the first salvo fired in the coaching battle between Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
The Patriots spent time on the sidelines making adjustments, but after the four Wildcat carries on the first drive, the Broncos ran it just once the rest of the game -- a 2-yard carry in the third quarter.
It wasn't a major factor in the game, but it showed McDaniels' creativity and led to some of the Xs and Os battles within the game.
For the first time this season, the Patriots lost the time of possession battle. The Broncos had the ball 36:29, while the Patriots had it 28:22.
A 5 of 13 performance by the offense on third down contributed to the statistic, as the Patriots were 0 of 7 in the second half. The Broncos have held opponents to a combined 2 of 31 on third down in the second half of games this season.
"We left our defense out to dry," quarterback Tom Brady said. "They were on the field too long. Any time you do that against a good offense, they are going to move the ball, just because your defense gets worn down. It wasn't a very good complementary game by us."
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots struggled to rush the passer out of the standard four-man rush. They needed more out of edge rushers Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess in this game, while there wasn't consistent push up the middle from inside rushers Jarvis Green, Mike Wright and Myron Pryor in sub packages.
Through four games, the defense has been praised as an unsung unit and it played well enough Sunday to win.
But the lack of pressure generated from the four-man rush is hurting them.
DENVER -- A few comments from Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Broncos coach Josh McDaniels after Sunday's game:
(on the game) "Obviously that was a tough loss for us today. Like a lot of games in this league, it came down to a few plays and they made more plays than we did. We have to give them credit. That's a good football team. Josh has done a really good job with them, and they made a few more plays than we did. Really, that's all you can say."
(on the return of Jerod Mayo) "We didn't think Jerod was really ready to go a whole game. He practiced this week and got some snaps and in the game, and he seemed OK."
(on defensive adjustments) "There were a lot of substitutions and a lot of trying to match up. A couple of times we were in things we didn't want to be in so we called a timeout. That was mainly the first half. They went in that wildcat-looking formation so we had to make adjustments to that on the first drive of the game and we got that straightened out."
(on the game) "It was a big win for the football team, a great team we played today. They were very well prepared and we knew that it would be a 60-minute game, or longer in this case. They forced us into some errors, and we made some errors on our own, but I am really proud of the team. We hung in there for four quarters or longer, kept playing and fighting, and made some adjustments in the second half, and gave us a chance to kind of swing the game in our favor."
(on his display of emotion after the game) "That's where my family sits up there in the box. It doesn't mean much if you can't share it with somebody. Sharing it with them and sharing it with the people in the stadium. This is the best place in the country in my opinion. To play pro football and to coach pro football; this great fan base, they love this team and we love them. Sometimes you're allowed to have fun and that's what I was doing."
(on this being just any other game) "I lied. It was a little more special to me because I knew how hard it would be to beat them."
(on postgame interaction with Belichick) "We agreed before the game that we would wave. We shook hands before the game and we knew that there has been so much made of him and handshakes that we agreed to just go ahead and do that, but I talked to him before the game."
The Patriots had a chance to put the Broncos away early, and let them stick around by either not capitalizing (Tom Brady overthrow of Randy Moss for a touchdown) or taking penalties (Logan Mankins unsportsmanlike conduct penalty taking them out of field-goal range).
A terrific two-minute drive at the end of the half -- in which Tom Brady's ability to keep plays alive with his feet was remarkable -- helped them recapture momentum after the Broncos closed to 10-7.
The chess match has come as advertised, with both teams using timeouts to regroup and get the personnel they need on the field. This is a great coaching battle, with the Broncos bringing out the Wildcat early to keep the Patriots defense off balance.
One challenge for the Patriots going forward will be getting Randy Moss the ball. The Broncos are rolling safety help over the top of him consistently. The Patriots are generally lining him up away from Champ Bailey's side, so that is the one of the games within the game: The Broncos are double covering Moss on the offensive left side of the field, and Bailey is erasing the other side. So the Patriots are working the middle of the field with Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and their tight ends and backs.
From a game management standpoint, the Broncos used two challenges, and because one was not successful, they are out of challenges for the rest of the game. That was a mistake by Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who challenged a 3-yard pass and cost himself to potentially a challenge a more important play later in the game.
Some credit should go to the Broncos as well, for making plays on both sides of the ball -- they were particularly impressive on their long touchdown drive and in stopping the Patriots on third-and-1. They are a resilient team.
The Patriots get the ball to start the second half.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick made the point this week that the Broncos are especially disruptive when getting teams into third-and-long situations. Top pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, for example, has five of his NFL-leading eight sacks on third down.
So staying on schedule and gaining positive yards on early downs will be something to closely monitor from a Patriots perspective, specifically in the running game. Negative runs could be a major factor in the game.
The Patriots have had too many runs result in negative yardage this season, as 12 of their 112 attempts have been stopped behind the line of scrimmage.
The breakdown of negative runs:
Laurence Maroney -- 7 in 27 attempts
Fred Taylor -- 2 in 45 attempts
Sammy Morris -- 2 in 13 attempts
Kevin Faulk -- 1 in 16 attempts
This is one area where the Patriots figure to miss Taylor. Even when there wasn't much yardage to be gained, Taylor managed to avoid negative runs and keep the offense on schedule.