Last year, Tom Brady and the Patriots were the ones who did the haunting. This year, they'll be haunted by the bad protections and poor throws that doomed them in their AFC title game loss to the Broncos.
DENVER — If you thought the Patriots' offensive line was overrun by Denver's front four in the AFC championship game that ended with the Broncos advancing to Super Bowl 50 after a 20–18 win, you should have seen that starting five in the locker room. As the minutes after the game dragged on, the media rolled in five-deep, waiting to hear from Tom Brady's protectors on why throughout most of the day, Brady was left so unprotected. Brady was sacked four times by Denver's ravenous pass-rushers, and the Broncos were able to do it without blitzing. This was a defense that put the NFL's best collective offense over the past decade on its heels to a degree we may have never seen before. You could argue that the Giants did that same thing in the two Super Bowls they took from Brady, but as the man himself said, this was not the same thing.
“That was a little different,” Brady recalled. “This is a different game. When you play quarterback, you're going to take hits, and that's part of it. You've got to stay in there and make those throws. There's no excuse for me not getting the job done. Our guys fought hard. I'm proud of all the guys for what they tried to accomplish today, and we just came one play short to a very good football team.”
According to the official box score, Brady was hit a total of 20 times on 56 pass attempts. This may have been the biggest sustained beating he's taken in a single game, and this is the Brady who's learned that at this stage of his career, he's got to get the ball out as quickly as possible. It didn't matter. None of it did. Von Miller set a new Broncos postseason single-game record with 2.5 sacks, adding four hits. Right tackle Marcus Cannon, who has played all over the place in New England's 37 different line combinations this season, looked haunted—perhaps hunted—and overwhelmed as the media waited for him to speak.
“Y'all can stop staring at me,” he said at one point. “I'm dressing.”
It's a weird thing we do. It's a weird thing the players do. We wait for them to summarize their greatest victories and most harrowing defeats, and they're expected to open up either way at a moment's notice. Fair enough: it's part of the game, and every man in that locker room signs up for it. Still, watching Cannon's eyes, it was tough not to wonder if we dehumanize what the players do, and if it has led to the desensitization of the individuals under the pads and beneath the face mask.
While Cannon dressed slowly, center Bryan Stork and left guard Josh Kline sat in chairs, their backs turned to the media. Eventually, left tackle Sebastian Vollmer spoke with a throng of reporters, but it was Cannon, Von Miller's personal tackling dummy at times in this game, who really showed the strain more than anyone. Later, he did talk one-on-one.
“It'll be up tonight,” Cannon said of the tape that would show his vulnerabilities all too sharply. “You can look at it and see where everything was, and use this as an opportunity to get better.”
That's all any one of them can do, though they'd have to be a whole lot better to overcome what the Broncos were throwing at them.
“They're good rushers,” Vollmer said. “DeMarcus Ware has been doing this for a long time. Same with Von... we tried doing some different things, but it didn't always work. It's more of a credit to the guys on Denver's defense. It's a very strong defense. They were the number-one seed, and they showed why today.”
While the media blitzed the Pats' offensive line, Tom Brady sat at his locker for a good five minutes, motionless except for the act of tearing off his ankle tape. He hung his head as Julian Edelman limped by him. The two men shook hands briefly, and Edelman took off as quickly as he could for the showers. Running back Steven Jackson, signed to a one-year deal in December after years of frustration with a series of awful Rams teams, looked stunned by his first playoff defeat since 2004. Sure, he got to see a couple of playoff games this year (his first ones since the 12-year veteran's rookie year), and he scored a touchdown in this game, but when you end with four carries for eight yards in a running game that does nothing, there's not much to say.
New England's offensive line didn't have much to say either. Their quarterback, though, spoke about them with admiration.
“They hung in there all day, and that's the strength of this team. Our strength was trying to get the ball to our skill guys, and letting them make some plays in space. It's a tough front, and they're good players. They're teeing off on the cadence. We're trying to keep changing it up. And on defense sometimes, you've got to get just one play and you end the drive, so I think they did a great job today.”
Let's be clear. This loss for the Pats wasn't just about bad protection, or the extra point missed by Stephen Gostkowski after Jackson's touchdown run. Yes, that conversion would have allowed New England to kick for one as opposed to going for two after Rob Gronkowski's amazing touchdown catch with 12 seconds left in the game, but Brady stood up for Gostkowski as well.
“He's a great player,” Brady said accurately of a kicker who hadn't missed an extra point since 2006. “He's the best. Everyone misses them at some point. There was plenty of football left. We knew what the situation was.”
In the end, this championship came down to four catches by Broncos players, and those five unstable pieces along New England's offensive line. The two offensive catches for Denver were for touchdowns, each by tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels is, in fact, the only man who has caught a touchdown pass from Manning at home this season. There was one against the Colts in November, and these two.
The first touchdown came with 7:32 left in the first quarter, and Daniels was the inside man of Denver's three-man on the right side of the formation. He threw an easy inside fake to linebacker Jamie Collins, Collins couldn't catch up, and that was one score.
“That was the play call,” Daniels said of the second touchdown, confirming that it was no audible. “We had some really good play-calling in the red zone. We knew it was big for us to get touchdowns, especially against this type of team. The second one? Man coverage, kind of the same as the first one, and the same guy in man coverage on me. I just faked the under route, and went to the corner, and Peyton made a great throw—all I did was catch it.”
I posited to Daniels that on both scores, it looked as if Collins was expecting him to extend his route vertically, and that's why the angular nature of his cuts messed Collins up to the degree it did. After all, Collins is by far New England's best cover linebacker.
“I think you've just got to give credit to our coaches for putting those plays in. They're [the Patriots] giving us the coverage we want in that situation, so I was the throw. Worked my tail off to get open, and Peyton did a great job of getting me the ball—made it easy for me to catch it."
It also helps, of course, that Daniels was with Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak in Houston and Baltimore. Perhaps no other player on Denver's current roster (including Manning himself) has a better feel for what Kubiak likes to call, and how those routes are supposed to be run and timed.
“I've run that route countless times in practice, at least,” he told me. “You don't always get to it in the game, but plenty of work on that during practice, and plenty of work on that this week in practice. Last couple days, when we were working on red zone, we got to run that play a few times, I got to run that route a number of times and work on it. I was a little surprised that I was able to get so open, because we ran the same play against them last year in Baltimore.”
The two other catches by Broncos players were interceptions. Each came in the first half, and were the primary contributing factors to perhaps Brady's worst first half as a professional quarterback. The first was a pick by Miller, who uncharacteristically dropped into coverage. Brady was throwing to Rob Gronkowski, but he didn't see Miller dropping at all, which was odd, as Denver dropped linebackers as well. Miller appeared out of nowhere in the seam and ended up with the ball.
“It was just a bad decision,” Brady told me after the game. “[Gronkowski] went in on him and was breaking out, and I think Von knew that and he made a good play.”
Per Pro Football Focus, Miller had dropped into coverage just 70 times all season before this game, and he was targeted just nine times, in 908 total snaps. So, I was curious: was the Miller-in-coverage idea something that caught Brady by surprise?
“They rush more often than not, but those are the things quarterbacks have to see,” he replied.
Miller, for his part, saw the throw coming and did what great players do -- he reacted intelligently, instinctively, and perfectly.
“I’ll tell you, I can do it all," he said. "I’m just playing. It was just a call that we had. We wanted to put a little bit of extra sauce on Gronk. He’s a great player. All of the plays that he made toward the end of the game, it was great. Gronkowski, he’s a great player. I was only trying to put a little extra sauce on him, like I said. I got off, I rolled to him and I saw Brady looking at me, so I just expanded and he threw it to me.”
The second pick was inexcusable. Brady had two defenders converging on the throw he made to running back James White, and safety Darian Stewart got there just a bit before linebacker Brandon Marshall did. As was the case on so many of Brady's bad throws, this pick was predicated by pressure—end Malik Jackson was in Brady's face just before the throw, and Brady was on the ground just after.
Malcolm Butler, the cornerback who ended New England's 2014 season with one of the most important interceptions in Super Bowl history, spoke well about the emotional ebb-and-flow that comes as part of participation in great games like these.
“Everybody went out there and we played to the end,” he said. “It came all the way down to the end, but that's just the nature of the game. You win some, you lose some. We've just got to bounce back and come back strong next year.”
Some might say that an attitude of “win some, lose some” is too cavalier for such an intense game. But it's a human reaction. The Patriots will tear their own guts out about this loss all off-season; one only has to look into their eyes to discern that. Last season, the Patriots were delivering those hauntings to others all the way until the end. This year, ultimately, they were on the receiving end. And everyone who signs up for this game understands the distinct reality that on many different levels, both results are bound to happen.
But the way back to normal can be a hard one at the best of times, and it'll take months to get those haunted looks out of their eyes.