FOXBORO (CBS) — It was billed as a clash of the two AFC powerhouses, but it turned out to be a one-sided laugher, one that was all but over at halftime, with the Patriots coming out on top over the Broncos.
It wasn’t a blowout from start to finish, as the Broncos actually carried a 7-3 lead into the second quarter. But it was all Patriots from there on out, as the Tom Brady-led offense flexed its collective muscle and the New England defense did enough to limit the lethal passing attack of Peyton Manning. Though the defense allowed 438 passing yards from the Hall of Fame QB, it went 8-for-11 on third-down stops and a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth-down stops, twice intercepting Manning and holding the Broncos to their second-lowest point total of the season. (The Broncos came into Sunday averaging 32 points per game.)
It was quite the effort from the top of the roster to the bottom. Here are the Four Ups and Four Downs, and once again, those downs were difficult to find.
There were a lot of great players who performed well in this game, but it just wouldn’t be right to start this thing off with anyone other than Brady. After all, this was sort of his day, as it was his 16th career matchup against Peyton Manning. With those Brady-Manning games comes a week’s worth of endless hype, and it was Brady who could hold his head high after this one.
Brady came away with his 11th win , one of the easiest in the longstanding rivalry, after a brilliant performance under center.
Brady completed 33 of his 53 passes (62.3 percent) for 333 yards and four touchdowns. He threw one interception, a tipped pass that was thrown high to Danny Amendola, but he more than made up for it with those four scores. He spread the ball to six different receivers, with four different Patriots hauling in five or more passes.
And for anyone who says that quarterbacks don’t play against each other, it must be noted that these are supremely competitive people. If you don’t think they know who’s lining up on the other side and all of the extracurricular “legacy” talk that comes with it, you’re nuts. Brady wanted to be his very best on this day, and he was.
Rob Ninkovich And Akeem Ayers
The final score might not be the greatest indication, but for a time, this was a close game, and tensions were a bit high inside of Gillette Stadium for a while.
Yet two big plays on defense helped change that. The first came from Rob Ninkovich, who dropped into coverage on the second Denver snap of the second quarter and completely fooled Manning by doing so. The quarterback threw a pass directly between the 5 and 0 on Ninkovich’s chest, and Ninkovich returned it back to the Denver 34-yard line. Four plays later, Brady hit Edelman for a touchdown, and the Patriots led 13-7. They never looked back.
The other momentum-turning play came from one of the newest Patriots in Akeem Ayers. He made his debut last week against Chicago with a sack, but his takedown of the quarterback this time around proved to be more consequential.
After Brandon McManus clanked a 41-yard field goal with the wind at his back, Broncos head coach John Fox elected to bypass a field-goal try on the following drive. So Manning took a snap on fourth-and-6 from the New England 34-yard line and faced just a three-man rush. Ayers stutter-stepped the left tackle before breaking to the inside of the line, finding a seam, and bursting up the gut at Manning. Ayers brought down Manning for a nine-yard loss, and the Patriots took over on downs. They then drove 57 yards for a touchdown, leaving just eight seconds on the clock in the first half. They’d take a 27-7 lead into halftime, but if not for Ayers’ sack, it just as easily could have been 20-14. That’s quite the swing.
The shifty receiver was a one-man Broncos wrecking crew in the first half, coming up with a pair of touchdowns. The first came on a pass over the middle on which Edelman somehow fought through the fight of T.J. Ward and came down with a remarkable catch.
But the second one was even more impressive, as Edelman caught a punt at his own 16-yard line, ran right, burst up the sideline, cut across the field, caused Jacob Tamme to fall on his butt and then beat the punter to the end zone for an 84-yard punt return touchdown. The play got Brady so fired up that he ran all the way across the field from the sideline to congratulate his teammate.
“I just saw a bunch of guys blocking their tails off and we got in the end zone,” Edelman said after the game. “So it was a great team play.”
Edelman actually caught another touchdown pass before halftime, but replay showed he let it touch the ground just a bit. Nevertheless, it was a dominant showing from Edelman in that first half, as his back-to-back touchdowns turned a 7-6 Denver lead into a 20-7 Patriots advantage. He finished the game with nine receptions for 89 yards and the touchdowns while also setting a franchise record with his fourth career return touchdown.
The 6-foot-6 behemoth furthered the case that he is not from planet Earth with a ho-hum nine-catch, 105-yard, one-touchdown performance for the Patriots.
The overall stats were, obviously, indicative of a dominant performance, but he also turned in one of the very best plays of the entire NFL season. Words can’t do it justice, so here you go:
That ought to make a highlight reel or two, eh?
Though Gronkowski was ruled down at the 1-yard line, Brady rewarded his one-man matchup nightmare by hitting him on a slant on the very next play for a touchdown.
It was just the latest installment of Gronkowski proving there is and never has been a physical match for him on a football field.
“He’s just got all the tools,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “He’s just got a great attitude and I love playing with him. Hopefully he goes down as one of the best tight ends to ever play.”
Third Quarter Defense
You know it’s hard to find too many faults when you’re singling out the play from one quarter. Yet the showing coming out of halftime was less than ideal for the New England defense.
Granted, they were going against Peyton Manning, and he’s going to complete his fair share of passes, but Manning had his way with that defense and moved the ball up the field with relative ease after halftime. Manning led the Broncos on a 57-yard touchdown drive to cut the Pats’ lead to two scores, and though the New England defense benefited from an interception that bounced out of Wes Welker’s hands, they allowed the Broncos to march 72 yards for another score on the next drive.
It put the onus on the New England offense to keep on producing. If ever there’s a game when the offense should be tasked with carrying the team, it’s probably the game against the Broncos. But still, the defense will likely tell you that it wanted to play better than that in the third quarter.
Brandon LaFell … In The First Half
Brandon LaFell had himself a pretty good game, but it got off to an inauspicious start. He made a diving catch attempt while wide open in the end zone but mishandled the ball, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal, and he came within inches of catching two separate deep balls. He also dropped a pass midway through the third quarter, one that set up a third-and-long just after the Patriots had converted on fourth down.
He came up with a 10-yard touchdown catch midway through the third, plus he made a tough catch on a third down later in the third, and those will help eliminate some of the sting. But he could have had a much bigger game than his six-catch, 53-yard, 0ne-touchdown performance.
“Man, it really …. you know, the two deep balls, fingertips, we missed close ones,” LaFell said. “And then the one in the end zone, I don’t think that’s ever happened to me, man, where I caught the ball and I’m about to get up and the ball just pops out. It was real tough, and then for [Brady] to come back with me, it shows he still got a lot of confidence in me and he believes in me, and hey, I appreciate that.”
As for his touchdown catch later in the game, LaFell described it as “like a monkey jumping off your back,” so he’ll be feeling much better over the bye week thanks to that score.
The only thing that would have made this game more enjoyable for New England fans would have been if that gross snowstorm hit the region about six hours later. As it turned out, the wet, nasty snow cleared before kickoff, and the wind was not even much of a menace. Ultimately this game could have produced much better photographs and video highlights if it took place in inclement weather, so thanks for nothing, Mother Nature.
He’s not on the Patriots, but he lands on this list anyway. We all wanted to see an all-time great game, and Manning failed to deliver. Sure, he put up monstrous fantasy stats, but this game was really never in doubt after the second quarter surge. It would have been a bit more exciting to have seen a nail-biter, but Manning’s bad decision on the Ninkovich interception really changed the game.
Thanks for nothing, Peyton.
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