DENVER — Gingerly, the 38-year-old quarterback peeled away each layer of defeat. A dirt-stained white jersey, tattered undershirt, bloodied socks. They revealed many of the bruises, cuts and scrapes that come with hitting the deck 20 times before and after throwing a football. His left elbow looked like a Walking Dead makeup job, with bright red spots where the skin was scraped away, and a deep purple bruise the size of an avocado where the forearm meets the elbow. This is how the triple-option quarterback at Navy is supposed to look after football games, not the greatest passer of a generation.
Tom Brady’s face wore no hint of anger or malice, and he fielded no apologies. Not 20 feet away from him, five huge men bearing strikingly few bruises dressed side-by-side in silence. The New England Patriots offensive line wasn’t mauled, manhandled or overpowered in the AFC Championship Game; it was simply ignored.
To the three or four rushers the Denver Broncos sent careening toward Brady on any given down, the five men standing in front of them might as well have been rec league hoopers taking on the Golden State Warriors. Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon and company were given no more consideration than a quick step to the inside and a sprint around the corner. And the quarterback was subject to all manner of indignity in a 20-18 loss.
“I tried to lay on him a few times,” said one Broncos rusher after the game. “I tried to rub my nuts on his face.”
Embarrassment. In the end, that’s what this was about. It was about setting flame to the notion that Tom Brady gets the ball out of his hands so quickly it’s impossible to get hands on him. And if you decide to blitz, said the prognosticators, good luck covering Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
The Kansas City Chiefs learned as much nine days ago. They accrued all of nine hurries and one hit on Brady, preferring to rush three or four big men and cover with eight or seven. Tamba Hali and Dontari Poe were supposed to be good enough to get to Brady in the requisite amount of time. They were not, and the Patriots won 27-20 on the strength of 17 catches by Gronkowski and Edelman.
But after 24 weeks of football, the Broncos and Wade Phillips have stopped comparing themselves to other teams or previous performances.
In the championship, Denver’s top four linemen played 23 fewer snaps combined compared to Week 12, when they pressured Brady 21 times with various blitzes and overloads. Denver won that game in overtime, 30-24, New England’s first loss of the season. This time around, the Broncos went with a rough recitation of the Chiefs game plan and just did it better.
“Brady had to know who we had on this line,” said rush linebacker Shaquil Barrett, “and he knew his line wasn’t very good coming into that game, so he had to expect this.”
Rush linebacker Von Miller dropped into coverage a season-high nine times and even intercepted a pass. When Miller wasn’t in coverage, he and DeMarcus Ware were manning the edge while Derek Wolfe and/or Malik Jackson squeezed the interior line. Throw in the occasional inside linebacker blitz and you get a combined 41 sacks, hits and hurries.
“It was wonderful, matching that coverage up with that rush—that’s our defense at its best,” said Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. “We weren’t going to show up and do the exact same thing we did during the season. We knew they were game-planning for what we did last time.”
Key personnel changes made it possible.
While the world was factoring Edelman’s absence from that Week 12 contest as one of the biggest reasons the Patriots would get revenge, all of us failed to recognize the other, more glaring non-participant two months ago: The Imperishable DeMarcus Ware. With the 33-year-old Ware sidelined by a lingering back injury that week, the Patriots were able to concentrate on neutralizing Miller. This time around, with Ware back in the lineup, Bill Belichick chose take his chances spreading the field and asking Brady to make quick throws. Supplementary pass blockers Steven Jackson, Brandon Bolden, James White and Rob Gronkowski were asked to support the starting five only twice; one pass-blocking snap for Jackson, and one for White.
Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon, left to his own devices, gave up two sacks and seven hurries.
“We knew they were a good defense,” Cannon said. “They got the better of us today, but it was a good game.”
So did the offensive line fail the Patriots in this loss?
Cannon paused to glare at the questioner for six very long seconds, about three times as long as Brady had to throw during any one of his 56 pass attempts.
“You know, we played as a unit tonight,” Cannon said, breaking out of the trance. “We’re brothers. We’ll always be brothers. We stick by each other, and I’m proud of everything we did this year. It’s an abrupt end, and we didn’t come out the way we wanted to. But one thing I’ll tell you is that I’ll die any day with my brothers on this line.”
About that line. Its leader, offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, reportedly was relieved of his duties Monday, in a move reminiscent of Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum getting canned after Brandon Bostick’s onside kick glitch a year ago. But before you pass blame on DeGuglielmo, don't miss the forest for the trees.
Yes, the line was dealt a devastating blow when starting tackle Nate Solder tore his right biceps in Week 5. But Super Bowl teams are supposed to build depth through the draft, supplemented by free agency. And Patriots coach Bill Belichick is supposed to be the guy prepared for every contingency, the guy thinking three steps ahead of everybody else…
Here’s a list of all the offensive linemen the Patriots have drafted in the first three rounds since 2006:
1. Nate Solder, first round, 2011
2. Sebastian Vollmer, second round, 2009
And that's not enough. When your quarterback is Tom Brady, relying on his quick release to get you past the Wares and Millers of the world isn’t just foolish—it’s irresponsible. A quick perusal of AFC East rosters will show you three teams stocking up on fearsome defensive linemen and one team that couldn’t appear to care less. For their part, the Broncos have begun four of their past five drafts by selecting Brady-hunters: Shane Ray in 2015, Sylvester Williams in 2013, Derek Wolfe in 2012 and Von Miller in 2011.
That last guy is the key. Miller is why we’re here, two weeks before the Super Bowl, witnessing a deteriorating Peyton Manning, in what looks like his final season, somehow standing atop the AFC. Von Miller is a 26-year-old savage in fat-rimmed nerd spectacles who speaks in clichés and deals in pain.
“I feel like if I play my game I’m going to get there every time,” Miller said after a 2.5-sack performance. “Fanatical effort and pursuit get it done for me.”
In two weeks, the fanaticism of the Broncos defense—what John Elway is calling the best he’s seen in 30 years—meets a Panthers team with a quarterback who remains unsullied through 18 games. The 19th won’t be easy.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.