ReFo: Broncos @ Patriots, Week 9
Storylines were abundant heading into this week’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, and none bigger than their respective positioning for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Perhaps buried beneath the Brady vs. Manning and Patriots vs. Talib/Welker stories, the Patriots dealt a big blow in the battle for home field advantage come January.
The story of the game came down to situational football, whether costly turnovers or playmaking on critical downs. While the Broncos seemed to move the ball through the air at will throughout the game, the Patriots’ defense cracked down on third (3-for-11) and fourth downs (0-for-4). Throw in the two turnovers, and it was a banner day for the “bend but don’t break” style consistent with Bill Belichick-led defenses.
For the Broncos, the defense was put into some tough spots, but they had few answers for the Patriots’ passing game, particularly tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman who combined to catch 18-of-20 targets for 194 yards and two touchdowns.
Of course, both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning put on a show once again, flashing their Hall of Fame ability in their 16th head-to-head matchup. We may only see so many more battles in the coming years, so it’s important to appreciate the two greats while we have them.
Beyond the quarterbacks, here’s a look at the rest of the game’s notable performances.
Denver Broncos – Performances of Note
Aqib Talib, CB: -3.4
Breakdown: It was not a great return to New England for Talib who was picked on to the tune of five receptions on eight targets for 73 yards, with all three incompletions coming from drops (including one in the end zone by Edelman). He struggled keeping up with Edelman’s route running throughout the game.
Signature Plays: The Edelman would-be touchdown was a nifty route with Talib shaken pretty badly (38 seconds to go in the second quarter). He also picked up defensive holding penalty when lined up opposite Gronkowski late in the first half.
Peyton Manning, QB: +1.3
Breakdown: Manning had flashes of his typical brilliance at times on Sunday, but there were also some questionable throws and he had a number of passes defensed by New England defenders. He dropped some beautiful touch passes to TE Julius Thomas for a touchdown and later to WR Emmanuel Sanders down the sideline, and he even led WR Demaryius Thomas into open space for a 42-yard gain on a post route with 14:51 to go in the game. Despite the big plays, he was unable to connect on a number of third- and fourth-down conversions in New England territory, and that was one of the big differences in the game.
Signature Pays: Manning’s first interception was a mis-read of the coverage as he appeared to be baited by linebacker Rob Ninkovich who adjusted to a near-identical concept that had just beaten him a play earlier. With 14:14 to go in the second quarter, Manning hit WR Wes Welker with a deep crossing route just behind Ninkovich’s coverage and Manning went back to a similar route on the very next play, but Ninkovich did a better job of gaining depth in his drop and read Manning for the easy interception.
Manning’s second interception was not really on him as he threw a decent pass to Welker amid four Patriots, but he dropped the pass and CB Brandon Browner picked it off on the deflection. This offset an earlier poor decision by Manning who rushed a throw under pressure right into CB Kyle Arrington’s arms, but Welker was there to bat it away to save the interception.
Broncos Running Backs: -4.5 in pass protection
Breakdown: A big part of slowing Manning down in any game is finding a way to get pressure and while the Patriots didn’t get to him often, when they did, it came quickly and often came through the running backs. Ronnie Hillman was the biggest culprit as he struggled with “A-gap” blitzes throughout the afternoon and surrendered three hurries on only eight pass blocking attempts.
Signature Stats: Broncos running backs combined to surrender five hurries on 16 attempts in pass protection to go with their combined -4.5 grade.
New England – Performances of Note
Rob Gronkowski, TE: +6.0
Breakdown: Gronkowski appears to be rounding back into form in recent weeks and Sunday’s game was no different. He caught 9-of-10 targets for 105 yards and a touchdown with seven of his catches going for first downs. He even threw in some strong trap blocks in the running game for good measure.
Signature Plays: Gronkowski’s catch and run at the 11:06 mark of the third quarter was a classic play from him as he took the short out route, made two defenders miss, and turned it into a 15-yard first down. But his most memorable play was his one-handed snag near the goal line early in the fourth quarter that set up his touchdown on the very next play.
Tom Brady, QB: +3.3
Breakdown: It was yet another efficient outing for Brady who did some fine work in the red zone to help ensure the victory for New England. In classic Brady fashion, he controlled the game between the numbers completing 26-of-35 passes for 266 yards and a +2.6 grade in that area.
Signature Plays: Brady’s best throws came around the goal line, though his best throw may have been a drop to WR Brandon LaFell in the end zone with 14:28 to go in the second quarter. He followed it up later in the quarter with a touchdown pass to Edelman as he zipped the ball past SS T.J. Ward who was beaten by the velocity on the ball as much as the location. Throw in a nice touch pass to Edelman that was also dropped in the end zone and it was a strong day for Brady around the goal line.
Jamie Collins, OLB, +4.0 and Patrick Chung, SS, +4.9
Breakdown: Both Collins and Chung were big parts of the Patriots’ game plan as Collins did fine work as a blitzer picking up five hurries on 12 rushes and Chung covered a variety of Broncos’ wide receivers and tight ends. He surrendered four catches on nine targets for 52 yards and a touchdown, but he also managed to get his hands on four passes (One negated by a penalty). Collins did his part in coverage as well, grading at +1.0 and finishing with a team-high seven stops.
Signature Plays: For Collins, his A-gap pressures stood out as he tossed Hillman aside at the 8:42 mark of the second quarter and later juking past him to provide the quick pressure on Manning and nearly force an interception with 5:39 to go in the second. Chung made some good plays on the ball, whether knocking away a potential touchdown with 11:33 to go in the fourth quarter or staying with TE Jacob Tamme’s wheel route with 4:38 to go in the game.
PFF Game Ball
Rob Gronkowski looked like the best player on the field Sunday as the Broncos had no answer for him in the passing game.
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