Pats clinch AFC title with 41-23 win over Denver

616114.jpg

Pats clinch AFC title with 41-23 win over Denver

In every cliche lives some truth. Sometimes a lot of it.

Take the one about being unable to win in the NFL if you turn the ball over. All the Tebow Magic in the world means nothing if you fumble, and fumble, and fumble some more . . . especially against the New England Patriots.

The Broncos started Sunday's game as if they were going to run the Pats out of Invesco Field at Mile High, out of the state of Colorado, and perhaps all the way into the Pacific Ocean. They were nearly unstoppable as they rolled up 218 yards in the first quarter -- a pace that would have netted them 872 total yards in the game -- and built a 16-7 lead with nearly 11 minutes left in the half.

New England put together its second 80-yard scoring drive to cut the lead to 16-14 . . . and then the turnovers started. And by game's end -- a 41-23 Patriots victory -- it was hard to remember Denver was ever in this one, let alone in control.

"It's always good to be able to get the ball out a couple of times," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We were able to capitalize on those opportunities."

The victory was important for the Patriots: It raised their record to 11-3, clinched the AFC East title and -- thanks to Houston's loss -- gives them a clear shot at a first-round bye. If they win their final two games (at home against the Dolphins and Bills), they're guaranteed of no worse than second seed.

And the recipe was as old as the game of football itself: Force the opposition into mistakes, and take advantage when they make them:

First, Ron Brace stripped Lance Ball of the ball and Ron Ninkovich recovered at the Broncos 19. The Pats got to the Denver 3 before stalling, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 21-yard field to give them a 17-16 lead.

On Denver's next possession, Mark Anderson strip-sacked Tim Tebow and recovered the fumble at the Denver 40. It took six plays for the Pats to go in, with Tom Brady scoring on a one-yard sneak -- followed by a Gronkowski-like spike -- for a 24-16 advantage.

"I don't get in the end zone very often, maybe once a season," explained Brady, dismissing the notion that he was reacting to the hype surrounding Tebow with his spike. "When I do, I get excited."

Then, in the most egregious error of the day, Quan Crosby muffed a punt on the Denver 17 with three seconds left and Dane Fletcher pounced on the loose ball. Gostkowski kicked a 34-yard field goal on the last play of the half, making it 27-16.

Throw in seven Denver penalties (against only four for the Patriots), and the die was cast. The Pats sandwiched second-half touchdowns around Tebow's second scoring run for the 41-23 final.

Tebow was the game's leading rusher, picking up 93 yards on 12 carries with the two touchdowns, but completed only half his passes (11-of-22) for 194 yards. He was also sacked four times for a rather astounding total of 53 yards, but 28 of them came on a late fourth-quarter desperation scramble on fourth down that completely broke down.
He and the Denver offense looked unstoppable at the beginning -- the Broncos ran for 133 yards in the first quarter, the most rushing yards ever allowed by a Belichick-coached Patriots team in one quarter -- but defensive captain Vince Wilfork said the Pats never lost their poise.
"We knew they were going to come out fast and explosive," said Wilfork, referring to the Broncos' treating this game as a measuring stick for themselves. "Our main goal was to weather the storm."

And quite a storm it was.

"We knew we were going to have to make adjustments," said Wilfork.

After they made them, they held Denver to 175 yards total offense over the last three quarters, and only the one touchdown in the final 41 minutes.
"We turned the game around defensively," said Wilfork.
As for the offense, it was business as usual. Brady had another 300-yard passing day (320) on a 23-for-34 performance, and -- with Denver determined to neutralize Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski -- completed 9 passes to Aaron Hernandez for 129 yards and a touchdown. He even hit Chad Ochocinco (!) with a touchdown pass, a 33-yarder for the first score of the game.

They also had a good day on the ground, as Stevan Ridley (65 yards), Danny Woodhead (40 yards and a TD) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (17 yards and a TD) spearheaded a 141-yard ground attack.

"It was a very emotional game," said Brady. "We showed some mental toughness. We really fought for 60 minutes."

Another football cliche . . . but, like the other one, just as true.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.