BOSTON (CBS) – For many who follow the New England Patriots, an ending that seemed unfinished Monday in Charlotte made it difficult to move on to Week 12 of the NFL season.
It was hard letting go of an official throwing his flag, before picking it up to deny the Patriots one last shot in a 24-20 loss. A night of compelling football theatre had given way to a momentary theatre of the absurd. And it deserved — no demanded — all the attention it got in the days to follow.
But the NFL calendar turns, and the Patriots themselves go from meeting an unfamiliar foe out of the NFC to preparing for one they know well as an AFC rival. It’s time we too leave the Carolina controversy behind — perhaps to see the Pats and Panthers engage again in February — to look ahead to another prime-time encounter.
Brady vs. Manning: A Trip Down Memory Lane
In this space, Tom Brady’s mom gets the last word on Luke Kuechly’s last-dance tango with Rob Gronkowski. She thought it was a penalty, her son told us with a smile on Wednesday.
But in thinking ahead to Sunday and Denver, we should be mindful of several instances in the moments leading up to those (in)decisive final seconds in Charlotte.
The Patriots fell and stayed behind early, after committing two crucial personal fouls that impacted scoring drives; one helping the Panthers net seven, the other forcing the Pats to settle for three. They also lost a fumble when Steven Ridley was stripped inside Carolina’s 13-yard line, leading to a Panther field goal and a potential 10-point swing.
And they couldn’t derail Cam Newton et al on eight (of 11) third-down tries. If he wasn’t escaping with his legs, Newton was making perfect throws with his arm. He hit Brandon LaFell on 3rd-and-9 for a 7-0 lead and Greg Olsen on 3rd-and-4 for a 17-10 advantage.
Ultimately, Carolina made the Patriots pay for those mistakes and breakdowns. Any repeat opposite Peyton Manning would prove even more unforgiving.
Going against the NFL’s most prolific offense is tough enough. Giving it extra and prolonged possessions will be insurmountable.
“Our defense has its work cut out for us,” Brady reiterated on Wednesday. “Offensively, we know we have to go out and score a lot of points. We can’t have a lot of three-and-outs, and certainly turnovers that give them extra possessions to score, because the teams that have done that have really gotten blown out. You turn it over and give them extra possessions; you’re going to have a very hard time winning.”
Of course, Brady and Manning are central to Sunday’s main storyline, as they share a field for the 14th time since Sept. 30, 2001. Concurrent in pre-game conversation, especially locally, is the pending return to Foxborough of New England’s all-time receptions leader.
In six years with the Patriots, Wes Welker earned five Pro Bowl invitations with five seasons of 100-plus catches and 1,000-plus receiving yards. His next touchdown grab will be Welker’s 10th as a Bronco, marking a new single-season personal best.
As always, though, there are other angles to cover; some less obvious than a showdown of future Hall-of-Famers or — you might say, if Carolina’s still on your mind — a blatant penalty in the end zone.
DUMMIES FOR FOOTBALL
During his 16-year career, Manning has amassed 63,059 yards and 470 touchdowns passing, as well as litany of other astounding stats on the strength and (more so lately) accuracy of his right arm. But as lethal as he is with a ball in (and out) of his right hand, Manning’s mind games make him most dangerous.
By that, I mean what his brain processes, pre- and post-snap, and how he gets inside the minds of defenders, in more ways than one.
“I think Peyton Manning just gets better every year,” says Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “He makes smart decisions with the football, whether he throws the ball downfield, short, intermediate; whatever it is. I think he just understands what the defense is (and) what coverage he’s getting, and puts the ball where he needs to put it.”
Much of Manning’s best work occurs before he gets his hands on the ball. Long a film devotee, he reads defenses exceptionally well.
“Usually when he sees what it is, he gets to the play he wants to get,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “I would say they’ve had a lot of big plays that way.”
At the same time, defenders have to be careful how much they read into Manning’s pre-snap gyrations and cadences.
As one of the busiest television pitchmen in sports, Manning can also be a pretty convincing actor on the field. Famous for his animated movements and shouting behind the line, he usually is pointing out defenders and/or changing a called play. But sometimes, his purpose is a put-on.
New England’s veteran safety Steve Gregory cautions younger teammates not to get distracted by what they hear from Manning.
“Definitely for some of the young guys, it’s just understanding schemes and techniques and things like that,” said Gregory, whose secondary mates include rookies Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon. “Don’t worry so much about what Peyton’s saying, because sometimes that stuff can be what we call a ‘dummy call‘ anyway.
“It may or may not mean anything. If you get caught up too much in that, it could take you away from your responsibilities and things you need to do within the scheme of our defense. If we focus on us, focus on what we need to do, keep everybody on the same page, that will definitely help us out.”
Belichick doesn’t seem as concerned, considering what one can’t hear; from Manning or any other quarterback trying to shout above the crowd noise.
“Normally at home, it’s hard for the defense to hear what the offense calls,” he said. “It’s hard enough for us to try to hear each other (on the sideline).”
CRAZY LIKE A FOX?
Sunday marks Denver’s third game under Jack Del Rio, following the Nov. 4 heart surgery performed on head coach John Fox.
Fox became dizzy while playing golf near his home in Charlotte, N.C. during the Broncos’ bye week, necessitating an aortic valve replacement. It’s an operation he planned to undergo after the season, in order to correct a genetic defect first diagnosed during a physical in 1997.
With Fox recovering in North Carolina, where he guided the Panthers for nine seasons, defensive coordinator Del Rio leads Denver on an interim basis. Himself the ex-head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Del Rio previously worked on Fox’s staff at Carolina.
Though that doesn’t make them clones, they share a similar mindset.
“We speak daily, sometimes a couple times a day. He is doing great. His spirits are up, he is healing,” Del Rio said Wednesday on a conference call with New England media. “His blueprint here has been established. I have worked with him in Carolina before this and then the last year-and-a-half here.
“We understand that we’ve got a good blueprint, (we’ve) got a good staff and good players. I’m just basically – I’m his lieutenant, I’m his defensive coordinator. I’ve got a few additional duties while he is healing, but he will be back shortly.”
Even if Fox contributes to Denver’s game plan, Del Rio is the ultimate in-game decision maker. As his Sunday counterpart, Belichick must anticipate and counter Del Rio’s coaching moves.
“I think what they do is more determined by the game: who they’re playing, what that team does, how they want to attack them,” Belichick replied Wednesday, when asked about any discernible difference in tendencies between Fox and Del Rio. “I don’t know…how much of that is John, how much of that is Jack. I don’t know the inner workings of that, but they don’t play everybody the same.
“They play them differently depending on how they want to play them. For whatever reason, they decide to do what they do in that game. So who decides what? How much input who has; I have no idea. You have to talk to them about that. It definitely changes.”
A BURNER IN THE COLD
Whether Stephen Gostkowski or Matt Prater kicks off Sunday’s game at 8:30 p.m., he’ll be doing it in frigid conditions that will make it difficult to keep up with one of the NFL’s best touchback percentages.
Gostkowski has forced opponents into touchbacks on 69 percent of his kickoffs through 10 games, giving him the league’s seventh-highest rate. Meanwhile, Denver’s Prater is fourth-best with a .757 clip.
But cold temperatures, especially when chilled further by stiff winds, generally lead to shorter kicks. As a veteran of the AFC East, Gostkowski has kicked in all kinds of conditions. Eight years into his Patriots career, he understands how to compensate.
“Cold’s not bad, wind’s not bad, but cold and wind together can be a nightmare at our position,” he said last week. “But we practice in it every day and it’s nothing I’m not used to. Being here for my eighth season, there aren’t too many times when you go into a game and (think), ‘I haven’t played in this kind of weather before.’
“You just develop the confidence throughout practice and go out there and trust what you’re doing. I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m going to go out and kick all touchbacks when it’s 20 degrees outside. When that happens you just give the coverage guys the best kick possible, (with) direction and hang time. Get it down there as far as you can. Use your leg strength to your advantage and try to get it down there as far as you can.”
It’s especially important facing Denver.
In mid-October 2012, the Broncos made an under-the-radar acquisition when 5-foot-5 Trindon Holliday showed up on the waiver wire after being let go by Houston. Holliday has since scored six times on returns — three punt and three kickoff — in just 15 appearances with Denver.
And even if Gostkowski’s kicks or Ryan Allen’s punts reach the end zone, Holliday has a license to return and ability to go wire to wire.
“He’s got a real good combination of skills,” said Belichick. “I’d say the big thing, he’s tough. He doesn’t mind running it up inside or taking a hit, that kind of thing. It’s not all just run to the sideline, kind of like (Carollina’s) Ted Ginn (who’s) a speed guy. He tried to get a lot of his speed outside. Holliday can definitely get outside, he’s got a lot of speed. But he gets a lot of plays up inside too, where people overplay him.
“He’s an explosive player that can really score on any type of return; inside return, outside return, he’ll run right up the middle and split the coverage as well as try to outrun (defenders) down the sideline.”
In last January’s playoff loss to Baltimore, Holliday scored twice on a 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return. He’s also recorded two 105-yard runbacks, last year at Cincinnati and this season vs. Philadelphia.
“He’s quick and he’s tough,” says Belichick, “he’s fast and he’s got good vision.”
All of which make Holliday capable of burning you, however far the mercury falls.
Those returns against the Ravens? They just happened to be in the coldest postseason game in Broncos history.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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