FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is a season in which each of the widely acknowledged roster of Super Bowl contenders has, at times, looked ordinary and beatable.
It happened to the Seahawks at Indianapolis, and again in the first half against then-winless Tampa Bay. It struck the Saints late on the road at New England and in a loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium. The Bengals melted down late in Miami; the Panthers barely functioned in a loss at Arizona.
And it happened to both the Broncos and Patriots on Sunday. Each spent 30 minutes in control of the spotlight -- and the other 30 minutes in icy darkness. A stalemate would have been an appropriate result, and would have happened if not for Ryan Allen's punt bouncing off
Tony Carter's leg.
It's possible that there ends up being no difference between a loss or a tie for the Broncos in their quest to win the AFC West; that depends on other factors, particularly next week's vital game at Arrowhead Stadium. But a 31-0 Patriots sprint in the second half was another reminder that this Broncos team, while elite, is far from perfect -- and certainly needs to reach another level if it is to avoid situations like Sunday's, where the difference in result comes down to the element of randomness.
And now, a look back at how the three keys to the game, identified Sunday, transpired:
1. PROTECT PEYTON.
Manning was hit four times and sacked twice -- more than the previous week from the Broncos' perspective, but less than the last month of games for the Patriots, whose pass rush had been dominant at times. But where the Patriots flourished was in maintaining tight coverage, even with a hurting group of defensive backs, leading to many contested throws.
2. CHALLENGE NEW ENGLAND'S SECONDARY.
New England's defensive backfield was banged up, and the Patriots compensated by putting their efforts into trying to disrupt Manning and the passing game with rushes from the edges. But the Broncos' method of counteracting was not to gamble on the tricky winds, but to put the game in the hands of
Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball, and, by overtime, undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson.
"Our running game was working, so that's what we were going with. When you're running the ball well, that's a good thing," said Manning.
But it's also a different era, one in which a prodigious running performance isn't a guarantee of victory. Sunday, Knowshon Moreno posted the seventh 200-yard rushing game in Broncos history, and also became the 16th running back in team annals to gain at least 180 yards.
Until Sunday, the Broncos had never lost when one of their running backs had gained at least 180 yards, and had lost just once when rushing for over 250 yards as a team. Of course, that loss came in the Broncos' last previous 250-yard game, against New England on Dec. 18, 2011.
3. TRY TO KEEP THEM GUESSING.
The Broncos got pressure, but it wasn't often through disguising their intentions -- although dropping defensive tackle
Mitch Unrein into coverage on Von Miller's strip-sack fumble in the first quarter was a nice wrinkle.
Instead, the pass rush focused on Miller working the edges and winning one-on-one battles. The Patriots opted to take their chances with their offensive tackles working one-on-one against him, and he accounted for two of Denver's three sacks and three of the team's five hits of Tom Brady.
What the Broncos did do to keep the Patriots off-balance was try to change the looks they showed in defending tight end Rob Gronkowski. At times, the safeties were responsible; at others, linebackers like
Wesley Woodyard were issued the task. But the Broncos also used Miller and defensive end Shaun Phillips lined up in one-on-one coverage against the athletic tight end, who finished with 90 yards on seven receptions.
Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman were targeted more often, but Gronkowski is, in the parlance of Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirs the Patriots' drink. If the Broncos face New England again, they may look for even more exotic wrinkles in an attempt to defuse him, while also trying to force Brady into more errant throws to his underneath targets. It's a difficult balancing act that few have successfully executed.
AND DON'T FORGET … THE WEATHER:
If the impact of the gusty conditions was not clear in regulation, it was evident on the overtime coin toss. The Patriots won and elected to defend and have the wind at their backs rather than receive the kickoff, gambling that the Broncos could not re-trace their 80-yard, game-tying march in the same direction moments earlier. They didn't, but they did eventually drive to the New England 37, where the wind came into play once again, and the Broncos elected to punt rather than have
Matt Prater attempt a 55-yard field goal into the wind.
"I asked (special teams coordinator) Jeff (Rodgers). I said, 'Are we in range?' and he said no. I even said, 'Field goal here?' and he said 'No, I really don't think we can make this kick here,'" Del Rio said. "It was tempting because it was so close."
Another five yards, and the attempt would have been from 50 yards, and that might have been good enough to gamble. But Prater was clearly affected by the wind during his warm-up kicks, and it had scarcely ebbed by overtime.
"If we had the other direction, those five yards -- we may have had an opportunity with those five yards," Del Rio said. "It certainly ended up being in their advantage."