Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson hugs New England Patriots head coach Bill Bilichick after the AFC Championship game at Sport Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on January 24, 2016. Denver advances to Super Bowl 50 defeating New England 20-18. Photo by Gary C. Caskey/UPI | License Photo
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning XVII - also known as Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Denver - was certainly an instant classic and one of the best contests in the legendary rivalry.
But it's also a 20-18 New England loss that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the entirety of the team and its passionate fan base would love to forget.
Brady was beaten and battered all game long as the New England offensive line simply couldn't handle the consistent pass rush of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and the rest of the Broncos front.
New England's 38-year-old passer was sacked four times and hit an incredible, season-high 20 times. Miller had 2.5 sacks. Ware had just a half-sack, but had a crazy seven QB hits, a season's worth for many an NFL player.
The rush derailed a Patriots' passing attack that was seemingly rejuvenated a week earlier with the return of Julian Edelman for the divisional-round win over the Kansas City Chiefs. But the action in Mile High saw the Patriots notch just two conversions on 15 third-down attempts.
Seven of Brady's first 12 drives of the day went without a first down, and 10 of the 12 with two first downs or less.
"They've got a great rush," Brady said. "They've got some great pass rushers, they've got interior pass rushes, they've got some outside rushes. I think you complement that with good coverage. It was just tough for us to ever get into a rhythm."
Brady threw a pair of interceptions. Stephen Gostkowski missed a point-after in the first quarter - his first extra-point miss in nine years. Jamie Collins allowed a pair of touchdown catches by Broncos tight end Owen Daniels.
And coach Bill Belichick made some decisions he admits he'd probably like to have back, although he would not get into specifics.
"Steve is a great kicker. He had a great year for us," Belichick said of his All-Pro who tried to take full blame for the loss. "I think every player, coach and participant in the game wishes there was a couple things they could have done differently. I feel that way. Everybody I've talked to feels that way. I can't imagine anybody that participated in the game doesn't feel that way.
"I feel like it's my fault. I'm sure all the other players that played feel like it's their fault."
The reality is that the Patriots came up a two-point try from potentially sending the title game to overtime. Also came an onside-kick try from maybe getting one last shot in the Rockies.
But in the end, Brady fell to 2-7 all time in Denver and 1-3 in AFC title matchups with Manning.
His longtime rival will move on to Super Bowl 50 and a shot at his second ring.
Belichick's defending champs had a "crash landing" into the offseason.
"It's the same basic feeling that 30 other teams have," Belichick said of the end of the season. "And another team is going to have it next week."
It doesn't feel great and Belichick is no fan of moral victories, but the coach clearly liked the effort his team put forth through adversity and injury all season long in Foxborough.
"Lot of respect for the way our team competed, proud of it," Belichick said. "We had guys battling right till the very last play, with a chance to tie or win, however you want to look at it. I think each of us that competed in the game, players, coaches, all feel the same way. [We'd] like to probably have a couple plays, couple calls, couple whatevers that we'd all like to have back in a close game like that.
"I think you always feel that way. This is no different. Denver is a good football team. We had some opportunities, but in the end came up just a little bit short. It's obviously a disappointing feeling at this time of year.
"We'll turn the page here and move on. And start the process all over again. That's where we are at."
So 2016 has begun in earnest inside the football offices at Gillette Stadium. The 2015 season crash landed, but it wasn't a total failure.
"We did a lot of good things. We won a lot of games," Belichick summarized. "And came up short in the end. So it's bittersweet."
REPORT CARD vs. BRONCOS
--PASSING OFENSE: F. When the Patriots struggle on third down, it's usually a sign of issues in the passing game. That was the case on Sunday evening in Denver when New England converted just two of 15 third downs (13.3 percent), leading to a failure to gain even a single first down on five of the team's first eight drives of the game. Quarterback Tom Brady had to throw the ball 56 times thanks to no running game, completing just 27 throws for 310 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a 56.4 passer rating. The offensive line and pass protection were the biggest problem, as Brady was sacked four times and hit 20 times. Von Miller had 2.5 sacks, while DeMarcus Ware abused mostly left tackle Sebastian Vollmer to hit Brady seven times, though he had just a half sack. The Broncos coverage also did its job for the most part by forcing Brady to throw quickly to covered receivers. Rob Gronkowski was the only target who did much, hauling in a game-high eight passes for a game-best 144 yards, including a big fourth-down, 40-yarder to set up his own late fourth-down, 4-yard touchdown. Julian Edelman mustered just 53 yards on seven catches via his 13 targets. James White was the least impressive, securing just five catches for 45 yards on his game-high 16 targets. The pressure was continuous, Brady wasn't overly accurate and the receivers couldn't get open with any regularity. It was an all-around bad day for the passing attack.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: D. New England didn't really try to run the ball against Denver, mostly because the team has no faith in the ground attack at this point given its lack of production down the stretch. Brady actually led the Patriots with 13 yards on three attempts, most coming on an 11-yard scramble. New England's running backs combined for 18 carries for just 31 yards, none averaging better than 2.4 yards per carry. Steven Jackson did punch in a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but otherwise it was a poor day for a ground game that left the Patriots an extremely one-dimensional, pass-first team down the stretch.
--PASS DEFENSE: C. Peyton Manning by no means marched up and down the field through the Denver thin air. The aging veteran completed 17 of 32 passes for just 176 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 90.1 rating. But Manning made the plays he needed to do so, most notably two first-half touchdowns to tight end Owen Daniels, who beat Patriots Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins for the scores. And Manning didn't make the mistakes that plagued him for the bulk of the regular season as New England never really came all that close to an interception. Emmanuel Sanders led the receivers with five catches for 63 yards. Manning spread the ball around to eight different targets and overcame a few drops, including from supposed No. 1 target Demaryius Thomas. The Patriots' coverage wasn't terrible but a lack of consistent pass rush and lack of any big plays in the back end allowed Manning to manage his team to victory.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B. Bill Belichick preached to his team all week about keeping the Broncos to less than 100 yards rushing. Denver was 9-1 in the regular season when topping the century mark on the ground. New England did its job up front, holding the Broncos to 99 yards on 30 attempts, which actually included an unheard of 12-yard scramble for Manning. C.J. Anderson did gash the Patriots on one 30-yard run in the second half, but totaled just 42 yards on his other 15 carries. Safety Patrick Chung was a big part of the run defense in New England's three-safety nickel packages. And the front of Alan Branch, Akiem Hicks and rookie Malcom Brown was impressive. It wasn't perfect and the Broncos were able to run more than enough to stay balanced. But the Patriots certainly didn't lose because of their run defense, which had allowed Denver to churn out 32 carries for 179 yards in the regular season overtime loss in Mile High.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: D. Stephen Gostkowski stood up and took full blame for the Patriots loss thanks to his first quarter missed PAT. While that's not entirely true, it did in some ways set the tone and the trend for the game. Gostkowski did hit his field-goal attempts from 38 and 46 yards, while also putting four of his five kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks. Ryan Allen was good enough with a 43-yard net on six punts, although he only got one downed inside the 20, as much about the offense as it was him. Neither team did anything on kickoff returns, while both Edelman (16 yards) and Danny Amendola (28 yards) had impressive returns on punts. Overall, the Patriots were decent in the kicking game, but the Gostkowski missed extra point - his first in nine years - was another key mistake for a unit that made far more than its share over the second half of the season.
--COACHING: C-minus. Bill Belichick is generally as consistent as any coach in the game. That's been especially true of his decision to defer when winning the coin toss all but twice since the NFL changed the rules in 2008. For some reason, though, Belichick took the ball after winning the toss in Denver. Was it to get a fast start? Send some sort of message? Or, was it a sign to his team that playing the way they usually play isn't enough in the house of New England horrors that is Mile High? It didn't work, as the Patriots picked up just one first down, punted and watched Denver drive to an opening touchdown. Belichick also deserves some questioning of his decision to go for a fourth-and-1 rather than kick a field goal with just over six minutes to go while down eight. Three points there could have changed the way the rest of the game played out, in a variety of ways. Belichick and his staff also deserve criticism for a failure to find any way to protect Brady and slow down the Broncos pass rush. The tackles got beat all day and got very little help. Belichick never pulled his team out of its funk in time and made some uncharacteristic calls along the way.