NE-DEN grades: Von Miller dominant in AFC Championship
In what was perhaps the last meeting between QBs Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the defenses for both sides instead stole the spotlight in the AFC Championship. Here are the top takeaways and highest-graded players from the Broncos’ 20-18 win in Denver.
New England Patriots
– What stood out most in this game was the constant pressure put on quarterback Tom Brady (-4.4 PFF game grade). Denver’s pass rush got to him early and often, resulting in poor decision-making and general inaccuracy, especially on downfield throws. Brady was knocked down on the play before his first interception (second quarter, 14:41) and he threw his second pick with DE Malik Jackson (+1.4) in his face. In total, he ended up facing pressure on just over 45 percent of 61 dropbacks, with a -3.2 raw grade on those plays versus -1.3 when throwing from a clean pocket. It was frequent (and effective) enough that Brady often reacted in the pocket, anticipating pressure even when Denver’s pass rush didn’t quite get there.
– TE Rob Gronkowski almost carried the Patriots to overtime with two spectacular fourth down catches in the final 100 seconds, despite being doubled on both plays. He beat both Chris Harris (+1.6) and Josh Bush deep at 1:34 of the fourth to haul in a 40 yarder before putting the Patriots within two points a few plays later with a touchdown grab over Harris in the back of the endzone. Gronkowski’s efforts resulted in his highest receiving grade of the season after he finished with eight catches for 144 yards in 14 targets, while the rest of the Patriots receiving group had a fairly quiet day.
– The loss shouldn’t overshadow how well New England’s defense played at every level in Denver. The unit had just one player finish with a negative overall grade after stifling the Broncos’ offense in the second half. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (+5.1), particularly, stood out with his constant presence at the point of attack and in the backfield on run plays. He finished with five defensive stops—one of them an impressive play against LT Ryan Harris at 10:26 of the third—while converting two of his 14 pass rushes into pressure.
LB Dont’a Hightower (+5.1)
S Devin McCourty (+3.1)
LG Shaquille Mason (+3.0)
TE Rob Gronkowski (+3.0)
DT Alan Branch (+2.8)
– As he often does, LB Von Miller had a remarkable performance on Sunday, with three sacks and five other pressures. Miller did most of his damage from the offensive right side, obliterating tackle Marcus Cannon (-7.3) and taking advantage of New England going four and five wide as often as they did. His consecutive plays early in the second quarter were particularly impressive; first, he put Brady on the ground at 14:46 before dropping into coverage on the next play and picking the pass intended for Gronkowski.
– Likewise, LB DeMarcus Ware and DE Derek Wolfe deserve credit for their performances. Ware gave LT Sebastian Vollmer (-2.8) a tough time, compiling 10 total pressures, including a massive six QB hits (four in the game’s final two minutes). Wolfe added eight pressures from the interior, terrorizing guard Josh Kline (-6.9) for much of the game. For an example, take a look at his bull rush at 8:15 of the fourth quarter.
– Quarterback Peyton Manning (-0.2) had a solid, but unspectacular, game to reach his fourth Super Bowl—not far from his performance in the divisional round last week. He took advantage of several short fields, while negating New England’s pass rush with a quick release, but struggled to move the ball for much of the game. Two of his passes were pickable and he had some accuracy problems when throwing more than 10 yards downfield, where he finished 7-for-18. However, one of those completions was his second quarter touchdown pass to Owen Daniels (14:46), where he located the ball perfectly in the end zone and beat linebacker Jamie Collins for the second time.
LB Von Miller (+6.2)
LB DeMarcus Ware (+5.9)
DE Derek Wolfe (+3.8)
CB Bradley Roby (+2.3)
DE Vance Walker (+1.7)