Patriots, Belichick Melt at Mile High

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, center, and head coach Bill Belichick during the first half the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

It would be foolish to dwell long on this loss with the great run that the Patriots have had since Belichick took over.

Take a deep breath and soak in the fifteen consecutive winning seasons in Foxboro. In ten out of those fifteen seasons, the Patriots have reached the AFC Championship game. New England has won more than ten games every single year since 2003. With the Broncos loss, their playoff record falls to 28-9 under Brady-Belichick. The Patriots have won a total of four Super Bowls in six appearances. They are quite possibly on the most dominant run in the history of professional football.

However, Belichick and his staff proved they are human again this season, including this Sunday. The Patriots fell to the Broncos 20-18 despite forcing Denver to only gaining 244 yards offensively. They beat themselves like just as they did in other portions of the 2015 campaign. Let’s rewind: The Patriots had to win a total of one more game in order to guarantee home field advantage throughout the postseason. They failed to do so and instead of playing in Foxboro the Patriots were forced to travel to Mile High.

Flashback to the Eagles game. Philly was 4-7 at the time. Up 14-0 with a dominating start to the game, Belichick elected to try a drop kick that left the Eagles with great field position. It changed the momentum of the game and the Patriots would fall to the terrible Eagles, 35-28.

Then there was the brutal loss in Miami. The Patriots scored 10 points in the entire game. Brady threw a total of five passes in the first half. It looked as if they were playing a conservative game plan and thought they could beat Miami just by showing up. That was not the case. Denver would pull out a win that week, while New England would lose 20-10. The Broncos effectively became the No. 1 seed that day.

The Patriots went 2-4 to finish the schedule. While many players were injured during the end of the season, it is nothing more than an excuse at the end of the day. The Patriots were bad down the stretch and home field advantage was something that would have provided a much needed spark. Gillette Stadium has often been a house of horrors for Peyton Manning, as Mile High has been for Tom Brady. The Patriots choked away their chance to lock up home field advantage and threw themselves into the fire.

Even the coin flip was uncharacteristic for Belichick. The Patriots almost always defer to the second half, instead they elected to receive. Brady would get one first down before punting. Manning would then march downfield on an 11-play 83-yard drive to put the Broncos up by a touchdown in the first quarter, aided by a phantom pass interference call on third down against Logan Ryan. The Patriots would benefit from a backward pass gone awry from Manning and take over at the Denver 22 late in the first quarter. Two plays later, they would score a touchdown but the extra point would truly prove to be unforgettable for Patriots fans.

Stephen Gostkowski missed. It was his first missed extra point in 523 attempts. The last time Gostkowski missed an extra point was 2006. Something didn’t feel right. The same old Mile High feeling was coming back again for New England.

The defense would step up against the Broncos on the next drive. Brady would come out and it felt like New England was gaining momentum. Two plays into the drive, Tom threw the ball right to Von Miller for an interception that was returned to the New England 16. This was not the Tom Brady that we have come to expect. Three plays later, Manning hit Owen Daniels for a touchdown and the Broncos jumped ahead to a 14-6 lead.

The Patriots would answer with a 13-play 48-yard drive. It did not lead to a touchdown but they did manage to nail a 46-yard field goal off the foot of Gostkowski. Manning would leave his offense out onto the field for another three-and-out and Brady would have the chance to start taking control of the game. Instead, Brady threw an interception on third-and-5. Luckily the TB12’s mistake didn’t lead to any Denver points.

Belichick & Co. would get the ball back after yet another Broncos three-and-out. However, the Patriots game plan at the two minute warning was questionable at best. They would run three conservative plays in a row and punted to the Denver 44, effectively handing away a chance at points to the Broncos. With 1:52 left, the Broncos didn’t have much ground to gain in order to nail a field goal and with 33 seconds left in the half Brandon McManus nailed a 52 yard field goal to give the Broncos a 17-9 lead.

In the second half, the defense stepped up yet again. The choice to receive instead of defer at the start of the game would not come back to bite Belichick in the rear. Manning and his offense would go for negative-5 yards and yet another three-and-out. An eight-play, 47-yard field goal drive would ensue next for Brady’s bunch. The score was 17-12 with 10:26 left in the third quarter. Plenty of time to go in the game.

The Patriots and Broncos would trade punts and ineffective offensive play right up until the fourth quarter. However, a vital 10-play, 48-yard field goal drive would give Denver a 20-12 lead with 10:02 left in the game.

An eight-point game with 10:02 left? Who else would you rather have as your coach than Bill Belichick? The Patriots would march downfield to the Denver 16. They traveled 63 yards on 10 plays and it would all come down to a crucial fourth-and-one situation. Belichick would decide to go for it rather than just take the points and kick the field goal. Brady went play action and threw to Julian Edelman who was stopped behind the first down marker. New England would be forced to turnover on downs with 6:03 left in the fourth quarter.

It felt like 2009’s 4th-and-2 all over again, the game upon which Belichick decided to go for it on his own 28 with 2:08 left in Indianapolis. They failed to convert and the Patriots lost 35-34. In 2016, it was definitely not as drastic as going for it on your own 28 but most of the other coaches in the NFL would have taken the points, especially considering the fact they were eight points behind the Broncos and not seven.

Peyton Manning did everything possible in order to give Brady chance after chance. After a Patriots turnover on downs, Manning only managed a three play drive for a total of three yards, burning a total of 1:21 off the game clock.

Brady would have chance No. 2 to march downfield and win the game. From his own 29, he started an eight-play 57-yard endeavor, leading the Patriots to the Denver 14. They would take two shots. One incomplete to Danny Amendola, and one incomplete on fourth down to Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots turned the ball over on downs again for the second time.

It seemed like it would undoubtedly be over at that point. All Manning had to do was complete a few passes in order to end it. Again the Patriots defense forced a three-and-out and with the help of the two minute warning, they would be getting the ball back with 1:52 on the game clock and one timeout remaining. Manning would hand the Patriots a third chance to come back and tie the game.

Edelman went back to receive the punt for the first time in a long time. It would prove effective as he returned the ball to midfield. The first three plays of the drive were all incomplete. On fourth-and-10 with 1:34 remaining, Brady lobbed a perfect throw to Gronk to the Denver 10 for a gain of 40 yards. The three next plays would bring them to the Denver four yard line. It would again come down to one more play for the Patriots. Tom Brady dropped back and nailed Gronkowski in the end-zone for a touchdown in improbable fashion. It seemed as if Brady magic might be happening again.

However, it was not meant to be. The two point conversion was intercepted and the Broncos would win the game. The Patriots came up short by two points, 20-18.

The Patriots should never have even been attempting a two-point conversion. At worst, it should have been on to overtime. If Belichick had chosen to kick a field goal with 6:03 remianing, it would have been on to Santa Clara. Hell, the game shouldn’t have ever been played in Denver. Belichick deserves just as much, if not more blame, than Gostkowski for this loss. Let’s not forget about the terrible play of the offensive line either. Marcus Cannon is a human Southie snowstorm spot saver. He is a parking cone.

And let’s get another thing straight here: Peyton Manning did not lead the Broncos to victory. That would be disingenuous. Manning should be thanking his lucky stars for his ferocious defensive front. In the second half, Peyton only managed to lead his offense to three points. The Broncos had five punts and one field goal in the second half. Denver would give the Patriots three different chances to tie the game and came up one two-point conversion away from sending the game to overtime. In the past two games, the Broncos have scored a total of 43 points; 21 of the points have been from their kicker. Is McManus their postseason MVP? Because it is most certainly not Peyton Manning.

Tom Brady was hit 20 times in the game, sacked four times. This was the most hits any quarterback has taken in the 2015-16 season. Under duress on almost every play, Brady almost pulled off a victory. The Patriots offensive line left No. 12 out to dry. An average offensive line might have been able to give Brady enough time to deliver the ball to his weapons. Despite all of the pressure, the Patriots still almost got it done.

The Patriots beat the Broncos in almost every aspect of the game, except on the scoreboard. New England had 336 yards of total offense, Denver had 244. Tom Brady threw for 145 more yards than Peyton Manning (292-145). The Patriots had 20 first downs while the Broncos only managed 12. The defense played an outstanding game with only 244 yards allowed. They would almost always be heading home with a victory with that stat-line.

Fortunately for the Patriots, Brady’s shelf life is certainly longer than Peyton Manning’s. New England will still have substantial offensive targets to surround their outstanding quarterback next season. The defense should continue to improve and with some activity in free agency, along with a solid draft, they should be able to improve their deficiencies; primarily at the offensive line position. Belichick and Brady should be right in the Super Bowl mix again.

In the meantime, if you are a Patriots fan, begin to embrace the Panthers. Because I can’t see Manning beating or outscoring Carolina in Santa Clara at Super Bowl 50. This has become the “Year of Cam”.

For Belichick & Co., it’s on to 2016.