Each week, Tom E. Curran previews the upcoming Patriots game . . . and each Sunday night/Monday morning, he looks back to see how he did. Here is the preview/review for Sunday night's thrilling 34-31, overtime win over the Broncos.
PREVIEW: Ignoring the subplots to Sunday night’s game -- Brady vs. Manning and Wes Welker’s return to Foxboro -- is no fun. But they are the subplots. The real story is whether the Patriots can avoid falling to 7-4 and into the No. 4 seed in the AFC with five games to play. A loss to Denver would do that. And it’s not too early to forecast that, if the Patriots wind up as the No. 4, they will be playing either the Chiefs or Broncos in the Wild Card round and will be on the road for the rest of the AFC portion of the playoffs. Last Monday’s loss to Carolina was big. Sunday night’s challenge is even bigger.
REVIEW: Things changed for the better Sunday night. The Patriots are now a game behind Denver and if the two teams wind up even, the Patriots now win the head-to-head tiebreaker. With the Chiefs having lost Sunday to drop to 9-2, those two teams are tied atop the AFC West and the Patriots -- because of the Colts’ loss -- are suddenly the No. 2 seed again. It’s all a far cry from the doom and gloom forecasted after the losses to the Bengals and Jets, isn’t it?
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
PREVIEW: The Patriots have scored 41, 31 and 45 points in their last three meetings with Denver. Last October, New England ran for 251 yards on 54 carries. The Patriots had 35 first downs and went 11-for-17 on third down. Stevan Ridley ran for 151 yards and Welker was targeted 15 times, catching 13 for 104 yards. Ridley’s still here. Welker isn’t, but Danny Amendola is good to go and he’s shown that when he’s healthy he can do similar damage. The Broncos are excellent at applying pressure with their edge players, Shaun Phillips and Von Miller, along with sub-rusher Robert Ayers. The Patriots had blocking mishaps last week that led to a pair of costly sacks. The Bronco linebackers -- Wesley Woodyard and Dan Trevathan -- can fly. The secondary can be had, although Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been playing better since getting to Denver. The linebackers may be able to contain Rob Gronkowski some, but the X-factor of Shane Vereen, Amendola working out of the slot, and Aaron Dobson continuing to play solidly gives the Patriots plenty of aerial firepower. And they know they can run with authority on this defense.
REVIEW: After falling behind 24-0 -- with two fumbles and a strip sack from the offense leading directly to much of the deficit -- the Patriots went on a tear that won’t be forgotten for, well, a week or so. The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four second-half possessions and then added a field goal to take a 31-24 lead with 7:37 remaining. Whether the Patriots intended to run the ball more, the deficit after 30 minutes forced them into throwing 33 times in the final 42 minutes, including overtime. In the Patriots' ever-spinning offensive Wheel of Fortune, Julian Edelman’s number came up. He caught 9 balls for 110 yards and two scores. That meant a quieter night for Amendola (3 for 17). Vereen caught8 for 60 and also carried 10 times for 31 when everybody but Brandon Bolden (13 for 58) got benched. Meanwhile, Kenbrell Thompkins -- on ice two games ago against Pittsburgh -- caught 6 for 56 while Dobson didn’t even see a pass. The Patriots' pass protection is still not what it should be, but once the Broncos started dropping more into coverage to protect against a Patriots team bent on throwing the ball, Brady had the time to feast. Brady, per usual, willed the Patriots back. The way he competes -- bloodthirsty, relentless and wearing every bit of emotion (good and bad) all game long -- may just be what separates him from every other quarterback when it comes to elevating his teammates. He fights. So they fight.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
PREVIEW: The Patriots' defense at full strength would have an issue keeping Denver under 24. With their front decimated and every key secondary player outside of Devin McCourty dealing with injuries, New England’s got big problems. They know what bothers Welker and, while Wes will get his, he’s going to get bumped and jostled. The Patriots will not want the postscript to this game to be how badly Welker kicked their ass. Julius Thomas is a problem for the Patriots' sluggish coverage at the linebacker level. But the biggest problem is dealing with Demaryius Thomas. Manning will find the times when there’s no help from McCourty and try to exploit the size-speed advantage Thomas owns. Pre-injury, Aqib Talib would be able to deal with Thomas. With Talib's balky hip, Thomas could be a big problem. The Patriots' run defense has been quietly stout and the Broncos are very much a pass-first team. Demaryius Thomas, coverage on Julius Thomas at the linebacker level, and Eric Decker on crossing patterns are the checklist for New England to deal with. After dealing with Cam Newton’s backbreaking third-down scrambles last Monday night, the Patriots will welcome the immobile Manning as a change-up.
REVIEW: Whether it was the weather, the matchups, the early lead or a combination of all three, the Broncos were run-heavy Sunday night . . . and it worked. Knowshon Moreno carried 37 times for 224 yards and a touchdown. When the Broncos did get around to throwing it, the Patriots’ game plan of playing with five and six defensive backs most of the game made it hard for Peyton Manning to get going. Manning went 19-for-36 for 150 yards with a touchdown pass and a pick. The Patriots, according to linebacker Rob Ninkovich, made it their business to mess up those crossing routes I mentioned . . . the ones that have freed up Eric Decker and Welker so often. It was a pretty good show of resilience by the defense to come out of halftime down 24-0 and then allow just seven points the rest of the way. In fact, on Denver’s last nine drives, the Broncos managed those seven points.
THE KICKING GAME
PREVIEW: The Broncos' Trindon Holliday is explosive on kickoff returns and ,with cold expected, it’s likely we’ll see some balls coming out of the end zone on Stephen Gostkowski kickoffs. Holliday averages more than 30 yards per kickoff return. He’s also the Broncos' main punt returner and -- while explosive there as well -- sometimes makes risky choices. Matt Prater is a very good kicker, as is Stephen Gostkowski. Britton Colquitt and Ryan Allen are both better than average punters.
REVIEW: Holliday gaffed. His fumble at the end of the first half on a punt didn’t cost the Broncos points but it did bring about a Hail Mary throw by Brady on which Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured his shoulder and was done for the day. Allen dropped two punts inside the 20 and hung his final punt so high that it created chaos for the punt return group. And Welker -- relieving Holliday for hands purposes -- didn’t do a great job getting his teammates away from the ball and a turnover ensued, leading to the game-winning field goal.
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
PREVIEW: We’re talking Bill Belichick against Jack Del Rio here. For all the advantages Denver has in offensive artillery against a dented Patriots defense, the checkmark for sideline brainpower goes in favor of New England. In a game like this, where adjustments will have to be fast -- and hard decisions in crunch time and time management are bound to be made -- New England has the more experienced hand on the controls.
REVIEW: Del Rio didn’t really do anything egregious. The game came down mainly to execution. Denver fumbled, got picked off and blew a critical special teams play. Not Del Rio’s fault. Belichick’s decision to take the wind instead of the ball in overtime was a gutsy call that few coaches would have the cojones to make even if it was the sensible decision with the wind impacting play as it did.
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP . . .
PREVIEW: Demaryius Thomas. Denver has a fleet of weapons but Thomas is the most daunting because a) Peyton Manning relies on him (team-high 92 targets) and b) Thomas is both a huge target at 6-foot-3, 229 and an explosive after-the-catch athlete (15.2 yards per catch). Denver gets him the ball on a variety of routes and his acceleration is absurd. A diminished Aqib Talib may try to dog Thomas all around the field but it’s going to be a major chore to hold him down.
REVIEW: Tremendous job all around by the Patriots defense to limit Thomas. He did have the big touchdown catch that tied the game at 31-31, but he had just 4 catches for 31 yards on the night and didn’t get much accomplished. Talib had a lot to do with that.
BRONCOS GOTTA STOP . . .
PREVIEW: Stevan Ridley. So many of Denver’s games have been lopsided early and that’s resulted in teams having to shelve their ground game. But there are yards to be made. Denver’s allowed 144, 131, 112, 121, and 166 on the ground in five of their last seven games. In the other two, Dallas didn’t try to run (14 attempts) and the Jaguars were busy being ineffective running and throwing. The Patriots have the ability to light up Denver’s defense in two different ways and establishing Ridley (and convincing him to protect the ball) should be the first one they try to establish.
REVIEW: Well, that didn’t take long. Ridley bottled himself up nicely with his fumble on the fourth carry of the night. He rode the bench the rest of the way.
DON'T BE SURPRISED IF . . .
PREVIEW: This game gets into the 80s despite the chill. Neither team has an all-world defense.
REVIEW: Mighta needed another quarter of overtime. And a few more degrees of temperature. And a lot less wind.
THAT SUMS IT UP, PATRIOTS-STYLE
PREVIEW: “You tell them, ‘OK, here we are, we’re going to be in Cover-2 zone, go ahead and run your best play,’ well they will. Or ‘We’re going to be in man-free or we’re going to be in blitz or we’re going to be in man-under two-deep, what are you going to do about it?’ They can usually do something about it. I don’t really think anybody has had a lot of success playing them (without disguising). … They’ve scored like, I don’t know, more points than anybody in football. I’m just saying, it’s hard to do. Somewhere along the line, they have a good matchup, if they know exactly what you’re in …I think you’re probably not going to like the way it’s going to end up.” – Bill Belichick on the need to disguise against the Denver offense.
REVIEW: The Patriots countered the Broncos’ anticipation of what defense was coming by flooding the field with defensive backs and mucking up the Broncos crossing routes. And while Denver ran with impunity, it could never get ramped up through the air.
THAT SUMS IT UP, BRONCOS-STYLE
PREVIEW: “Yeah, it was, because after that we kind of turned it on a little bit. Because we know we’ve got to be very prepared to play a team like that. They’re going to be well-coached, well-prepared. We can’t go up there messing around. I mean, you’ve got to handle their tempo and whatever they throw at us. I think we are a lot more prepared this year than we were last year.” – Champ Bailey, Broncos corner, on how the Patriots' win at Gillette in 2012 was a wakeup call.
REVIEW: If last year’s loss was a wakeup call, this one was a bucket of cold water and a brick of fireworks rolled under the bed.
THE WINNER IS . . .
PREVIEW: Broncos 31, Patriots 28
REVIEW: Patriots 34, Broncos 31 (OT)