BOSTON (CBS) — By now, you know (and have happily forgotten) exactly what took place in last year’s AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Denver Broncos. Playing on the road after mismanaging the end of the regular season, the Patriots couldn’t handle the Denver pass rush. They couldn’t run the ball. And they ultimately dropped a 20-18 decision that propelled Denver to the Super Bowl and eventual championship.
Here’s what you may not remember: the Patriots came within a whisker of tying the game with just seconds left and may have actually done so had Tom Brady made a different decision.
Does that mean we’re blaming Brady? Hardly. But after two big completions to tight end Rob Gronkowski down the stretch – including the touchdown throw that made it 20-18 – Brady had Gronk open on the Patriots’ subsequent two-point conversion attempt. For whatever reason – and there are likely many – Brady didn’t go back to Gronkowski on a play that could have forced overtime and undoubtedly left head coach Bill Belichick, Brady and an entire Patriots following with regret.
In any case, with the help of toys that we’ve finally elected to use, here’s a look at that final two-point conversion:
As the Pats line up and snap the ball – this screen grab is frozen at the moment Brady first handles the ball – Brady’s preferred options are to his right: Gronkowski (blue 1), wide receiver Julian Edelman (blue 2) and running back James White (blue 3). You’ll notice that the Broncos have four pass defenders lined up on this side of the formation – cornerback Aqib Talib (orange 1), safety Josh Bush (orange 2), corner Chris Harris (orange 3) and safety Shiloh Keo (orange 4) – suggesting that Gronkowski would get double coverage.
But he didn’t.
So here’s the question: did Brady similarly presume that Gronk would attract two defenders, leaving Edelman and White in 1-on-1 situations? Based on how the play unfolded, the answer is yes.
Oh, one other thing: take note of the Denver pass rushers are aligned mostly to Brady’s left (and the defensive right).
As the play begins to unfold, Brady starts moving toward his right (away from the pressure) and surveying the field. Incredibly, Gronkowski (again, blue 1) gets a free release – nobody touches him. Bush (orange 2) and Harris (orange 3) both break for White, who starts toward the front, right pylon. Meanwhile, as Edelman starts upfield, Talib holds his position and waits, prepared to break in whichever direction Edelman breaks.
These are the first signs that Gronkowski has a 1-on-1 matchup with, of all people, Keo (orange 4), and the Patriots would be the first to tell you that Gronkowski in any 1-on-1 matchup should be target 1A.
So what did Brady see on this play? Again, it’s hard to know. Incredibly, after the game, Brady was not asked about what he specifically saw on the 2-point conversion attempt. But as Brady rolls to his right here, the coverages are pretty well defined. Talib (orange 1) is sitting on Edelman. White has actually drawn two defenders – Bush and Harris. This leaves the back right of the end zone for Gronkowski, who also has a mismatch in his favor. Even if he were covered by a better player, Gronkowski is clearly the best choice and Brady has a huge area to deliver him the ball.
The problem? Brady seems locked on Edelman who, while 1-on-1 with Talib, is being defended by one of the best corners in the game – and someone who is a physical mismatch for him. Also, take note in the bottom middle of the screen of defensive lineman Malik Jackson (orange 5) who is also reading Brady and closing on Edelman’s area.
Just a split-second later, you can see now that Brady’s arm is cocked as Edelman is cutting to the inside of the field. Talib is similarly reacting to Brady and Edelman, moving toward the middle of the field. Jackson, too, is a step closer. Meanwhile, Gronk has a step on Keo and plenty of space in front of him.
Though it’s hard to see here – that’s why we circled it in white – the ball is now in the air, approaching Edelman. Using his size and quickness, Talib has undercut Edelman and started jumping for the ball. Meanwhile, Jackson has almost closed the entire gap, leaving Brady little or no area to squeeze the ball into. Even if Talib is late, there seems little chance of Brady getting the ball by Jackson, whom he probably (and understandably) never saw.
Recognizing the ball is not coming his way, Gronk has started to turn back toward the play – as have the others – relegated to a spectator on the most important play of the Patriots’ season.
Making the kind of play Patriots fans grew quite familiar with during his time as a Patriot, Talib deflects Brady’s pass – the ball again circled in white as it arcs through the air. Edelman and Jackson are on the ground. And up steps Denver cornerback Bradley Roby, who has his choice of batting the ball to the ground or intercepting it.
At the top middle of the screen, Keo has finally caught up to Gronkowski.
Roby elects to intercept the pass – foolishly, as it were – and ultimately fumbles it away, though at no cost. The final narratives on the game pitted most of the blame on the Patriots’ offensive line and their inability to pass protect, on Belichick’s regular-season mismanagement that resulted in the game being played in Denver and on the Patriots’ inability to run the ball.
Despite it all, the Patriots had a matchup they wanted and the ball in Brady’s hands with a chance to tie at the end, undoubtedly something worth considering as the teams reunite this Sunday, again in the altitude at Denver.