DENVER -- Hey, look everybody! Tom Brady went 24-for-38 for 277 yards with a touchdown pass and a rushing touchdown! His passer rating was 92.9!
Anyone who’s been paying attention for the past dozen years knows that the numbers don’t tell the story. Brady played badly Sunday in the AFC Championship and a team he dragged kicking and screaming to the No. 2 seed in the AFC wasn’t in a position to pick him up. Not against Peyton Manning. Not with the Denver receivers running downhill at them. Not this time.
Mixed in those four incompletions was a poorly thrown third-and-3 launch to Matt Slater on the Patriots first drive, an overthrow of a wide open Julian Edelman on the Patriots third drive, an overthrow of an open Austin Collie on the Patriots final drive of the first half, and a high-and-wide crossfield throw to Edelman that was just an ugly attempt.
Those hurt. On a day when the Patriots needed to be brilliant and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels schemed up some plays early that gave New England opportunities, Brady was flat.
“We definitely had some chances on third downs and I had a chance down some lanes and I certainly wish I would’ve made them,” Brady acknowledged. “You know, it’s a tough day for our team. We fought hard and we came up short against a pretty good team.”
Asked about his missed deep connections, Brady said, “I just over overthrew them.”
The Patriots’ margin for error has been tiny all season long. Remember, this is a team that was life and death with the Browns and Texans before pulling out wins late.
The optimism sparked by their last three games when they ran over the Ravens, Bills and Colts was a bit of an apparition. None of those teams were stout against the run. And the Patriots were able to play from ahead in all of them.
The game plan offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hatched had merit. The Broncos knew the Patriots needed to get positive yards on first and second down to get into third-and-favorable. Denver expected a ground attack. The Patriots used play action and threw to unlikely targets like Slater, Collie and tight end Matt Mulligan. Sometimes they were open and the connection was missed. More often, there was no separation because, well, Julian Edelman was the only Patriot able to get separation.
And the Broncos were able to bottle up the runs the Patriots interspersed.
Falling behind Denver was bad enough. Not being able to sustain drives because of third-down failures and putting the Broncos offense back on the field led to a slow death.
“We didn’t do much of anything at the beginning of the game,” said Brady. “We didn’t pass it and it was hard because we didn’t complete those third downs. It is hard to get into the run game when you have two three-and-outs to start the game. It’s hard to be productive when you aren’t getting third downs. The third down conversions early were not good and we just didn’t make enough plays.”
Twice when the Patriots had scoring drives in progress, they got submarined by protection issues. In the first half, they were on the Denver 18 with a third-and-8 after LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain and a flip to Julian Edelman gained just 2 yards. Then Denver defensive end Robert Ayers slipped past Nate Solder and dropped Brady for an 11-yard sack.
With 2:30 left in the third, trailing 20-3, a fourth-and-3 (two plays after Stevan Ridley was dropped for a 1-yard loss) saw Brady get sacked by Terrence Knighton when he rocketed past Logan Mankins.
All week this was framed as a game that would impact the legacies of the starting quarterbacks. Given the assortment of weapons Brady took the field with and the overachievement of the team, to think a loss would undo Brady’s “legacy” was foolish.
For Peyton Manning, beating a diminished Patriots team wasn’t going to be a remarkable accomplishment. Still, his efficiency in doing so was breathtaking.
“He played great,” Brady said of his counterpart. “They played great. They all did. As a team. They have a lot of great players. He is certainly one of the greatest players to ever play. He had a very good day and the defense played good. We just didn’t get enough pressure on that team to stop them. We were playing from behind all day.”
The pressure of entering a season without any of the receivers he’d grown comfortable with, extracting plays from them and putting wins in the bank all year long was a remarkable and -- no doubt -- exhausting. After 14 seasons, the finality of a season’s end is probably harder for Brady now than it was when he was in his 20s.
“They’ve all been tough at the end of the year,” he stated. “I have had some losses in the Super Bowl which have been tough and losing in the championship game (AFC) last year was tough. Losing is not easy. I give (the Broncos) a lot of credit. They played really well.”
Even if Brady had played well, it may not have made a difference. But he did not. And as a result, the Patriots had no shot.