It is a game that will go down as one of the best games in the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady series. With the Broncos up 24-0 after one half, it appeared as if the Patriots were done. A complete half of repetitive fumbling (the Patriots fumbled five times in the first half) and a lackluster passing attack led by Brady's 81 passing yards at the half gave the impression that the Broncos had this game in the bag.
Well, they do say looks are deceiving.
The Patriots completed the biggest comeback in their franchise history—yes, it is the biggest comeback in Brady's career—after they overcame a 24-point deficit to defeat the Broncos in overtime. New England rattled off 31 straight points before the Broncos scored a touchdown toward the end of the fourth quarter to tie up the game, only to fall in overtime.
Words can hardly describe this loss for the Broncos. You can try to use as many one-word descriptions as possible. Painful. Excruciating. Disappointing.
The Broncos blew the game. The good news is, they still have control over their own destiny as far as the No. 1 seed is concerned in the AFC playoffs. They also won't have too much time to think about the game as they prepare to face the Chiefs in Kansas City for AFC West supremacy (yet again) in Week 13.
That's the good news.
Unlike Denver's loss to the Baltimore Ravens in last year's divisional playoffs, the Broncos will have a chance to redeem themselves in the following weeks ahead.
However, there's bad news, and I'm not referring to New England's tiebreaker advantage over the Broncos with this latest defeat.
Denver, we have a problem—and it has to do with Peyton Manning.
Manning played terribly. He was ineffective the entire game, and he was never in a true rhythm as we've seen him in for the entire season.
Having said that, everything went wrong for Denver in the second half. Whether it was the fumble by Montee Ball, the defense disappearing in the second half or the special teams miscue by Tony Carter at the end of the game that led to New England's game-winning field goal in overtime, the Broncos as a team played at their absolute worst in the game's pivotal half.
But there's a real concern with Peyton. And that concern has to do with his play in cold-weather games.
Game-time temperature for the Broncos' loss to New England was under 25 degrees. Manning had his worst game of the season, throwing for just 150 yards and completing just 19 of 36 passes for a 70.4 quarterback rating.
Peyton struggled, as he threw two interceptions—including the game-losing interception to go along with two fumbles—and failed to have success in the deep passing game, further raising questions about his recovery from the neck surgeries he underwent during his season away from football.
Following the Broncos' loss to the Ravens in January, Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post went into detail about how Manning's play was possibly affected by his neck surgeries in the past:
Some wonder if the cold prevented Manning from airing things out Saturday. Manning spent the season rehabbing his right arm and shoulder as part of his recovery from his neck surgeries. He had already admitted to wearing a glove on his throwing hand because his grip was different in his post-surgery career.
Manning had multiple surgeries to repair a disc issue in his neck that caused damage to the nerve grouping that affects his right triceps, which then impacted his ability to grip and throw the ball. He began wearing a glove on his throwing hand first in practice, then later in games as the season wore on.
Manning himself admitted to WATE-TV in April of this year that he may never be 100 percent following his neck surgeries, via Kareem Copeland of NFL.com:
You know, I still have certain challenges. When you're dealing with nerves, I've learned it's a patience deal. They kind of say it could be a year or two, or it may never come back, so I'm kind of hopeful. I kind of wish certain things would come back a little bit more, but I have learned to adjust and compensate in the state that I am. I still would like to make some more improvement. I still work at it.
The question is, how does it affect his play in these cold-weather games?
Does it affect his play at all? Does Peyton just struggle in big-time games? Was it Bill Belichick's ability to game-plan versus Manning that caused him to struggle in Sunday night's game?
Belichick devised the perfect scheme versus the Broncos. He had his defense play bump-and-run with Denver's receivers. New England's physical corners, such as Aqib Talib, roughed up Denver's receivers on the outside. With the absence of tight end Julius Thomas, Belichick was able to match up his secondary with Denver's trio of receivers in Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
Denver's receivers struggled. There's no doubt about that.
There is also no doubt that Belichick deserves credit for his role in Manning's struggles. His scheme definitely rattled the four-time NFL MVP.
But Peyton did not look like Peyton Sunday.
And this wasn't one of those underwhelming games by Manning in which it was simply a matter of relentless pressure—Denver's 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7 was the perfect example of that. This time, Peyton was inaccurate even when there was no pressure.
His passes sailed on him. There were several instances in Sunday's game when Manning had Demaryius Thomas open along the sidelines—only to completely miss him by underthrowing him.
It has become an unwritten rule of sorts for commentators never to criticize Manning. It seems more time is spent praising Peyton than focusing on the negatives—even if he is struggling.
Sunday was another case of that.
This was one of the worst games of Manning's Broncos career. If it hadn't been for the defense forcing three turnovers and Knowshon Moreno's career rushing day of 224 yards, this would have never been a game—the Broncos averaged just 3.7 yards per pass attempt.
And Peyton's struggles were never really mentioned.
On one of Manning's pass attempts to Thomas along the left sideline, NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth put the blame on Thomas for not being aggressive enough in catching an incomplete pass intended for him.
Obviously, Collinsworth also failed to mention that the pass was underthrown by Peyton.
Whether it's the issue of throwing the deep ball and gripping onto the ball in cold-weather environments, the coaching of Bill Belichick or simply Peyton struggling versus big-time opponents, the Broncos have a problem—and it seems to happen when Peyton happens to play in cold climates.
With the Super Bowl taking place in New Jersey this year, it will be the first time the big game is held in a cold-weather environment. According to Stephen Stirling of The Star-Ledger, the early weather forecast for the game in February is expected to be partly cloudy, with temperatures ranging in the mid- to upper-30s.
If the Broncos expect to win a Super Bowl this year, they are going to have to do it in less than ideal weather conditions.
The only way they're going to do that is if their four-time NFL MVP proves he can win in those conditions in the phase of his career following neck surgery.