Patriots vs Broncos: Takeaways from Denver's 26-16 Win over New England
The Patriots have nothing to be ashamed of, the injuries they overcame just to get back to the AFC Championship were nothing short of amazing.
With the loss of cornerback Aqib Talib, the Patriots just weren't able to match up with Peyton Manning's potent offense. Tom Brady's lack of weaponry this time prevented a miracle comeback, as did a Denver defense that played with something to prove.
But it's not as bleak for the Patriots as some might think. 2013 once again proved the Patriots will be in the hunt as long as Bill Belichick and Brady are in town. And with a return to health of many key players, the Pats should once again be a Super Bowl favorite in 2014.
What else can we take away from a disappointing beatdown to end the season?
Here are the takeaways!
Pats Had No Answer for Peyton Manning
There's no other way to put it, Peyton Manning put on a clinic against the Patriots defense.
After an opening-drive punt, Manning put together six-straight scoring drives and didn't make a single mistake with the ball or with his audibles. He finished throwing for 400 yards and two touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, had no interceptions or fumbles.
Whether it was the loss of Aqib Talib or just all the injuries on defense finally catching up to the Patriots, they had no answer for Manning. The pass rush was ineffective and the depth in the front seven insufficient in the thin Denver air.
The Broncos exerted their will on long drive after long drive, and the Pats were unable to get a turnover to turn the game around.
Hats off to Manning, but it was a disappointing showing from a young defense that will need to use this experience as something to learn from.
No Rolling Blount on This Day
LeGarrette Blount finished with just six yards rushing after Denver was stout in the middle of their run defense early in the game.
On the day, the Pats rushed for just 64 yards, as the ground attack that had carried them in bad weather the last two games, couldn't spark the offense in the biggest game of the season.
However, with the way the scoring went, the Pats certainly never had a chance to really get the ground game going. Shane Vereen led the team with 34 yards, mostly on draw plays.
New England's power running game was virtually nonexistent, also failing to covert the two-point conversion that would've made it an eight-point game in the fourth quarter.
Blount is a free agent and seems like he enjoyed his time in New England. Perhaps he'd come back on a team-friendly deal. He clearly emerged as a playmaker late in the season, and with Stevan Ridley's fumbling issues, the Pats will need insurance.
On this day, though, the Pats' offensive backfield couldn't provide the spark the team needed.
Protection Lapses in Big Moments
The Patriots gave up only two sacks, but they came in key situations and were given up by the two linemen, Logan Mankins and Nate Solder, that are supposed to be the anchors of the line.
The first came on 3rd-and-8 at the Broncos 29-yard line with the Pats down 10-3 in the second quarter. A first down there could've really changed the game if they finished the drive with a tying touchdown.
The second came on fourth down in the fourth quarter with the Pats down 20-3. That sack was a big nail in the Pats' coffin.
Not winning in those clutch situations was where the game was determined, and these two sacks were major plays.
The Patriots' offensive line will be an area of interest this offseason, with Dan Connolly set to enter the final year of a deal that will deliver a large cap hit and center Ryan Wendell hitting free agency.
The Pats lost Sebastian Vollmer, but Marcus Cannon ably replaced him and looks like a good option as the swing tackle rather than at guard, where some had projected him.
Against the Broncos the protection was good, but it wasn't good enough in two key moments.
And that made a big difference.
Talib Injury: The Straw That Broke the Patriots' Back
As we saw in last year's AFC Championship, the trickle-down effect of losing Aqib Talib did extensive damage to the New England secondary. Without their best cornerback, the Pats had no one who could cover Demaryius Thomas (seven catches, 134 yards, one touchdown).
The Pats couldn't get off the field on third down, and that's perhaps where they missed Talib most. The Broncos were 7-of-13 on third down for the game, but even that stat is skewed by a couple third-down failures late after the game was in hand.
For the most part, the Broncos marched up and down the field at will against a Patriots defense that was without Talib.
Would he have made a difference? It's impossible to know, but this is the second year in a row that Talib has gotten dinged in the conference championship game, and that will surely play into the contract offer the Pats make to him this offseason.
The Pats still have some solid pieces in their secondary independent of Talib, and those young players will need to learn from this thorough domination.
As for Talib's fate, it will be a major storyline this offseason.
Pats Need Weaponry
We said it all season, the Patriots were in a rebuilding year on offense. For a short time, it looked like Rob Gronkowski would take the offense back to an elite level, but by the end, they simply didn't have enough weapons to keep up with the Broncos.
Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce all made strides this season, and the Pats will need all to take significant steps this offseason.
Julian Edelman was one of the only offensive players to have a solid game, turning in 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. He's a free agent and could leave the Pats looking to replace their leading receiver for the second year in a row.
Danny Amendola had no catches and a drop on his only target. Not a positive showing for one of the players out of whom the Pats really needed to get something. He's more expensive to cut than keep next season, but few would feel comfortable with him taking over the slot role should Edelman leave.
Gronkowski will likely return at some point in 2014, but the Patriots can't count on him. They'll need to once again aggressively address the receiver and tight end positions this offseason.
Injuries Helped Develop Promising Depth
The only positive stat we can spin out of the defensive performance would have to be holding the Broncos to just 2-of-6 in the red zone. Those stops kept the game close into the second half. If not for them, this one would've been ugly.
Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo are all under contract next season, but the depth and experience that the Pats built in their absence should help in 2014.
Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones especially look like good players to hang on to and would've never gotten the chance without injuries to Wilfork and Kelly.
Chandler Jones put together a very strong second season and looks to be an ascending player, as does Dont'a Hightower. Jamie Collins just might be due for a breakout season in 2014.
The Patriots have the second-youngest team in the NFL and should be better next season based solely on the players projected to return. There are still holes to fill, but a lot of solid, versatile and experienced pieces are in place.
We Haven't Heard the Last from Tom Brady
There will be plenty of talk in the coming weeks and years about the legacies of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. On Sunday, Manning's team was the better one, and Brady's was significantly short-handed and did the best anyone could expect this season.
Brady did not have the best game of his career, but it wasn't one of his worst either. He was safe with the ball and was 23-of-38 for 277 yards, with a touchdown passing and one rushing. The Pats just weren't able to dictate terms at any point in the game, and once they got into a two-score hole, it took them out of what they do best.
Brady put together one of the gutsiest seasons of his career in 2013. He made due with what he had, and he didn't have much. As expected, Brady kept his offense fighting until the end, a true sign of the kind of team the Patriots were this season.
Now, with a full offseason to retool and adjust the offense, Brady and the Pats should be better in 2014. There were tons of surprises in 2013, just too many to overcome.
This is Peyton Manning and the Broncos' time, but the young Pats look primed to bounce back.
What a Great Season!
It was a disappointing end, but the 2013 Patriots were one of the most special teams of Bill Belichick's tenure in New England.
They overcame injuries that would've been catastrophic to other teams and climbed out of major holes multiple times. 2013 was perhaps the biggest validation yet of how special was the job Belichick did.
The Broncos, a veteran team with an elite collection of offensive weapons, were the better team, especially at home in perfect conditions. But the Patriots have nothing to hang their heads about; they took the season almost as far as they possibly could.
With Belichick and Brady back for next season, there's little doubt that the Pats will once again be in the thick of it. They'll get healthy, reload in some key spots and be a favorite to take another shot at the Super Bowl in 2014.
That's all Pats fans can ask for.