It was inevitable this would be the story line heading into the game, and most writers probably had a couple of stories on the subject stashed away just waiting for the next time they met, but how did the game pan out, and did anybody else steal away the spotlight?
The game started off evenly enough before mistakes from Denver allowed New England to run up a big lead. The Broncos, who are developing quite the habit of doing this, then pegged them back but ultimately came up short, thanks to a couple of huge mistakes.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Manning and His Arm
Since I took Manning’s arm to task in the Analysis Notebook a couple of weeks ago, it would be remiss not to evaluate it in this game report. I still think his arm is some way short of 100%, but he does seem to be coping with it far better than earlier in the season. Manning in this game graded +4.0, threw for 345 yards and completed 31 of 41 aimed passes (discounting throwaways, etc), but perhaps the biggest stat was the zero in the interception column.
He was guilty of forcing throws a few times, but unlike the game against Atlanta earlier, he did more in knowledge of his limitations and within the context of the game. The old Peyton Manning isn’t back, and we may never see that guy again, but the player suiting up for the Broncos right now is a pretty good approximation of him, and playing more than well enough to get wins if those around him can do their share of the leg work.
The Patriots won this game by being able to do pretty much what they liked against the Denver defense at most points of the game. Wesley Woodyard (-3.4), Chris Harris Jr. (-2.4) and Derek Wolfe (-4.8) represent all three levels of the defense that struggled to deal with what the Patriots brought all game long. New England consistently ran an up-tempo offense, either running no-huddle, or snapping the ball almost immediately once they got up to the line to keep the Broncos on their toes, and also struggling for a breather. This resulted in a ridiculous 97 plays on offense for the Patriots (including nullified penalties), leaving multiple Broncos on the field for much longer than they would usually expect. There is a lot of talent on the Denver defense, but they need to work out how to combat an offense like the Patriots, because they are going to have to in the NFL.
Watt about Von Miller?
Everybody may have crowned Houston’s J.J. Watt defensive MVP already this season, but we should hold fire a little given the season Von Miller is having. Last season we thought he was as good as any defensive player in football before injuring his thumb, and this season he is every bit as good, if not better. In this game his grade of +12.3 breaks the scale of the PFF player pages thanks to a day in which he dominated at the point of attack with speed, power and quickness.
He notched a pair of sacks, but had three near-instant hurries as well, and finished with seven defensive stops in the game. On the few occasions where the Patriots found their running lanes blocked, it was usually because Miller had just jacked his man deep into the backfield and blocked it, blowing the play up before it got going. The key to his big performance was having to drop into coverage only seven times, because that is the weakest area of his game by a distance.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Welker Back in the Fold
Much was made of Wes Welker’s reduced playing time and role in the offense early in the season, but whether by design or because of injuries he was once again the focal point of the Patriots’ offense. His +4.2 grade in the game comes from being practically uncoverable and catching 13 of the 14 balls thrown in his direction, for 104 yards. Chris Harris Jr. was on Welker most of the day, and was the only Denver player to force an incompletion, and that had more to do with less than ideal ball location than anything else.
In total, Welker beat six different defenders for a reception in the game, and there can be no bigger statement than when the Patriots needed a first down to seal the victory, Brady held the ball a couple of beats longer for Welker to uncover himself. Welker was at his best in this game, and his best is a nightmare for defenses.
The New England offensive line has been questioned at times going into the season and through the first few games. While some players in this game were dominant (Nate Solder, +4.7, Logan Mankins, +6.0) others struggled much more (Ryan Wendell, -3.3, Sebastian Vollmer, -1.5) to give the line a strange mix of performances. Wendell was at fault for two of the sacks allowed in the game, while Vollmer coughed up the other to an unstoppable Miller around the edge, but neither player distinguished themselves in the run game either, an area where the other linemen excelled.
In the end, the questions about the line may have been justified, but they are playing more than well enough as a unit to keep Brady upright and walk away with a comfortable win.
The Belichick Curve Ball
It wouldn’t be a Patriots game without Bill Belichick doing something strange in the secondary. In this game Alfonso Dennard, with zero snaps to his name before this game, played 31 snaps as part of the sub-packages on defense. He responded with a +2.5 grade thanks largely to some excellent shut-down play on Eric Decker. In fact, Dennard was thrown at five times and didn’t allow a single catch, while breaking up two of those passes.
Manning and the Broncos liked the matchup so much they went deep on the 7th-round rookie on back-to-back plays, but he responded with blanket coverage both times and made sure the second pass had no chance. This would appear preferable to playing wide receivers at corner.
— Only Mike Adams played all 97 snaps on defense for Denver.
— Willis McGahee graded out at -0.4 for the game. He had played well initially, but his drop and fumble late in the game were two torpedoes in the side of Denver’s comeback attempt.
— Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady were the only non-linemen to play in all 97 of the Patriots’ snaps on offense.
If there was a player that impressed every time you looked at him in this game, it was Von Miller who edges a great performance from Welker to earn the game ball.
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