NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
In what was one of the most bizarre finales of the season, special teams ace Nate Ebner recovered a fumble created when Broncos cornerback Tony Carter inadvertently touched a punt deep in Denver territory with just over three minutes remaining in overtime, giving the Patriots the ball deep in Broncos territory with just over three minutes left and creating a thirty-two-yard field goal opportunity for Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, allowing the Patriots to emerge with a narrow 34-31 overtime victory and improve to 8-3 on the season.
1. Peyton Manning held to just one-hundred-and-fifty passing yards
Much was made of New England’s unhealthy secondary heading into the game, but the Patriots actually did an excellent job of defending against the pass for the majority of the game, with Manning failing to convert his first third-down conversion attempt of the game, a play in which he found Wes Welker but was unable to gain the seven yard required. Manning was sacked by Chandler Jones on the New England six-yard line on Denver’s third drive of the game, forcing the Broncos to accept a short field goal to conclude what had initially looked like a touchdown drive. Manning found Jacob Tamme for a second-quarter touchdown, but was held in check for much of the remaining game, having compiled less than one hundred yards midway through the fourth quarter and having been intercepted by cornerback Logan Ryan on a short attempt throwing in Eric Decker’s direction. However, Manning was able to lead Denver down the field at the end of the game, eventually connecting with wide receiver Demariyus Thomas on a fade route down the sideline with Aqib Talib in coverage, that score tying the game at thirty-one apiece, capping off an eighty-yard drive in response to a drive resulting in a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Julian Edelman.
2. Aqib Talib successfully shadows Demariyus Thomas
Aqib Talib did allow wide receiver Demariyus Thomas to come down with an eleven-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter which tied the game at thirty-one, but ultimately his work in shadow coverage must be considered a success, having held Thomas without a catch for all but Denver’s final drive of the third quarter. Manning barely targeted Thomas in the early going, with just three passes thrown his way prior to the late fourth quarter, in which he found him for three completions including the touchdown. In overtime, Manning attempted to throw another fade Thomas’ way in a critical third-and-fourteen situation, but the play was broken up by Talib, forcing a Broncos punt which returned possession to the Patriots with plenty of time remaining (although New England failed to capitalize on the opportunity.) After having had success all season against an opponent’s top receiving option, Talib struggled to defend Panthers veteran Steve Smith last week, but rebounded well this week and showed why the Patriots will be hard-pressed to let him leave this offseason after demonstrating the ability to virtually eliminate an opponent’s top receiving option; however, his injury in the overtime period, sustained while attempting to tackle Knowshon Moreno, does nothing to help him allay concerns about his ability to remain healthy over the course of a long-term contract.
3. Knowshon Moreno rushes for over two hundred yards against weak run defense
Knowshon Moreno’s first carry went for eleven yards, and the running back remained an effective option for the Broncos throughout the game, paradoxically carrying a Denver offense which was not able to pass the ball for much of the game. It was Moreno who scored Denver’s first offensive touchdown of the game following a pair of rushes inside the ten-yard line. Reserve running back Montee Ball also made an early impact, gaining thirty-one yards on a short pass midway through the second quarter to convert in a third-and-twenty situation, with Moreno returning to gain twenty-one yards on his next two carries and helping to set up a Peyton Manning touchdown throw to Jacob Tamme. On the game, Moreno carried the ball thirty-seven times, gaining an unbelievable two hundred and twenty-four yards and one touchdown, allowing the Broncos to move the ball in a game where Peyton Manning was surprisingly ineffective, unable to find any of his receiving options with consistency. Much of Moreno’s success came on runs out of shotgun formations while the Patriots were defending against the possibility of Manning throwing the ball, but the game goes to show that New England still has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to defending the run, a weakness which has plagued the team all season.
4. Patriots rally from twenty-four-point halftime deficit
After being shut out for the entire first half, the Patriots were able to get back on track in the third quarter, mounting an initial drive in which Tom Brady threw the ball on seven of eight plays, culminating in him finding slot receiver Julian Edelman for a five-yard touchdown pass which cut the lead to seventeen points. Following a Montee Ball fumble which was forced by linebacker Dane Fletcher and recovered by fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, Brady completed a pair of throws, one an eleven-yard gain to running back Shane Vereen and the other a thirteen-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski, which helped set up Brandon Bolden’s one-yard touchdown run. Brady passed the ball on all but one play of New England’s next drive, finding Edelman for forty-three yards down the left sideline on his second attempt of the drive, and connecting with Rob Gronkowski for a six-yard touchdown over the middle on the Patriots’ final offensive play of the quarter, a score which concluded a twenty-one-point period for the team and left New England just three points behind entering the fourth quarter, with Brady finding Edelman again on the team’s next offensive drive to give the Patriots the lead with just over thirteen minutes remaining. The team’s third-quarter output was uncharacteristic given their recurring third-quarter struggles this season.
5. Six offensive fumbles jeopardize the game for Patriots
Stevan Ridley began the game as New England’s starting running back, gaining seven yards behind right tackle Marcus Cannon on his initial rush, but was quickly removed from the game after he was stripped by Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard on his fourth carry of the game, with the ball being recovered by Broncos linebacker Von Miller and returned sixty yards for a touchdown. Following Ridley’s fumble, the Patriots turned to a combination of Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden for the remainder of the game, with Vereen carrying the ball ten times and Bolden attempting thirteen carries. On the very next drive, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was strip-sacked by Miller, with setting up Denver inside the ten on a drive which also resulted in a touchdown, this time coming on two-yard plunge by Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno. On New England’s third drive of the game, running back LeGarrette Blount fumbled the ball away inside New England territory, allowing the Broncos to take a 17-0 lead following a short field goal attempt by Matt Prater. Typically, the Patriots are effective when it comes to taking care of the ball, but ball-security issues helped the Broncos build an early lead in this contest, which is something that Bill Belichick should focus on this week. Although only three fumbles were lost, the team fumbled on six different occasions tonight.