Broncos prepared mentally, but not physically, for Patriots attack
FOXBORO, Mass. -- After another loss to New England was in the books -- their third in the span of 10 games, including last season's playoffs -- Champ Bailey and the rest of his Broncos teammates found the repetition of it all a little wearing.
It's not as if Denver didn't know what was coming from Tom Brady and Co. Sunday at Gillette Stadium. But recognizing New England's up-tempo, no-huddle offense, and slowing it down when it gets going at warp speed are two very divergent things.
"Exactly, that's why it's so tough to play them,'' said Bailey, Denver's future Hall of Fame cornerback, moments after New England's methodical 31-21 conquest of the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. "What's so frustrating is we worked on it all. So it's not like it's surprising. It's just when the game comes, with everything happening at game speed, there's no way you can really be ready for it, because you can't simulate that speed in practice. You just have to have a better sense of urgency when you play a team like that.
"Running that offense, Tom Brady is just as good as he's always been. And that's why we lose. Because he's just as good as he's always been.''
In a game that we all wanted to make about the Brady versus Manning rivalry, back on stage again after a one-year forced sabbatical, the Patriots instead made it about how well they do what they do on offense, when they're doing it at something close to approaching full capacity.
New England dictated the pace of this game from the start with its beloved no-huddle, and kept the gas pedal pressed for most of the night. The Patriots didn't quite finish the deal with the same efficiency it showed through three quarters, but Denver's fourth-quarter comeback died 10 points too short, and New England won its second consecutive game to improve to 3-2 and take over first place in the AFC East.
"Those guys, when you have a group like that, that's been playing together that long, it's like you know each other so well,'' Bailey said. "We'd see what they were doing, but we'd be like a split second late to get there. The Patriots know what works and what doesn't, and those guys were prepared and clicking.''
New England, especially in the first half, played at a breathless pace, racing to a 17-7 halftime lead, with 20 first downs, 276 yards of total offense and more than 17 minutes of possession time. The Patriots had the ball just four times in the first half, but their final three drives produced two touchdowns and a field goal, and featured possessions of 12, 14 and 16 plays. For good measure, New England added another 16-play drive in the third quarter, taking the proven approach that the best way to stop Manning is to keep him off the field.
"They certainly did a good job of staying on the field,'' said Manning, who lost for the ninth time in 13 meetings against Brady, his longtime nemesis. "They did a good job converting on third down and minimizing our possessions. Any time you're playing against a good football team you have to be able to convert opportunities when they present themselves. We had some chances. We just didn't do it overall consistently today.''
Sunday was far from the first time Manning has lost to Brady despite putting up gaudy statistics in their game-within-the-game showdown. Manning completed 31 of 44 passes, good for 345 yards, with three touchdowns, no picks and a 116.2 passer rating. Brady was great, too, going a ridiculous 17 of 20 in the first half for 165 yards, before finishing at 23 of 31 for 223 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions and a 104.6 rating.
But Manning knows what it's like to win the battle but lose the war, and it came down to the familiar reality that the Patriots were the better team, and proved it throughout the game, despite No. 18's individual brilliance. New England was in control throughout, only briefly giving a Broncos comeback life in the fourth quarter, thanks to a Stevan Ridley fumble at the Denver 35. But a Willis McGahee fumble at the Patriots 11 with 3:42 remaining snuffed out the Broncos' hopes.
"Peyton kept pressing, and made some unbelievable plays,'' Bailey said. "It's just unfortunate we fumbled and lost the ball down there. Add it up and they were just better than us today. We had a chance, we gave ourselves a chance, but they were better.''
Significantly better when you consider how the Patriots imposed their will offensively against the Broncos (2-3). This was no all-out aerial assault by Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. New England ran its no-huddle attack as effectively, if not more so, when it was running the ball. The Patriots finished with 251 yards rushing on 54 attempts (4.6), this coming just a week after hanging 247 yards on Buffalo in last week's 52-28 destruction of the Bills. It's the first time since 1978 New England has posted consecutive 200-yard rushing games, and 18 of the Patriots' team record 35 first downs came on the ground.
Ridley led the running attack with 151 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, but Brandon Bolden had 54 yards on 14 rushes, and Danny Woodhead contributed 47 yards on seven carries, including a stunning 19-yard run on 3rd-and-17. If the Patriots can both run and pass this effectively out of their no-huddle formation, you can chalk up another AFC East title and playoff berth right now. The balance shown by New England's offense the past two weeks has been breath-taking, and that's also the cumulative effect of how the hurry-up attack keeps defenses on the field for long stretches at a time.
"We're getting a lot of nickel defense, and when they put the little guys out there, we have to take advantage of it,'' said Brady, of the team's new-found rushing approach. "We're playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We have to keep doing it. We're just trying to put a lot of pressure on those guys to get their calls in and line up and play against us. We're running the ball against some very advantageous looks and we're throwing the ball against some advantageous looks, and the important part is to be able to do both. It's been pretty good the last few weeks.''
The Patriots are pressing the issue on offense, and it's working with spectacular success. The communication and coordination between Brady and his playmaking weapons is running at peak efficiency. And Bailey and the Broncos have frankly seen enough for the time being.
"Everything that happened out there, we had seen on film, but it's just the speed of the game against them,'' Broncos linebacker Joe Mays said. "We weren't ready for that. They were able to run the ball, pass the ball, they definitely were able to run their whole playbook against us.''
Against Brady and the Patriots, it's an opponent's familiar refrain: "We knew what was coming, but we couldn't stop it.'' There's no surprise to their approach, and if it's well executed, there's even less to the outcome.