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.