In the most recent installment of their storied rivalry, Tom Brady got the best of Peyton Manning as the Patriots topped the Broncos 31-21 in Foxboro on Sunday afternoon.
Three costly Denver turnovers and their inability to stop, or even slow down, the suddenly-vaunted New England running game proved to be the deciding factors of the game. The loss drops the Broncos to 2-3 while the Pats improved to 3-2 with their second consecutive win.
Manning’s stat line – 31/44 for 345 yards and three TDs – was superior to Brady’s 23/31, 221 yards and one TD effort but it was Brady’s team that won the battle in the trenches as the Pats out-rushed the Broncos 251 yards to 70 yards.
Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. Josh McDaniels has learned how to coordinate a running game.
Strange as it might sound to Broncos fans, an offense coordinated by Josh McDaniels won Sunday afternoon’s affair thanks in large part to a dominant running game. New England out-gained Denver on the ground by a factor of almost four-to-one.
Think about that for a minute – the Patriots beat the Broncos with a running game.
Given the respect the New England passing attack garners, it is understandable for opposing defenses to key on trying to minimize the damage Tom Brady and company can do. However, it was brilliant game-planning by Head Coach Bill Belichick and McDaniels to take it to Denver on the ground. The Pats smartly ran the ball against the Broncos’ nickel defense using an up-tempo, no-huddle approach that prevented from Denver from substituting with bigger-bodied defenders.
As Brady explained after the game, “We're getting a lot of nickel defense so when they put little guys out there we've got to take advantage of it.”
Denver Head Coach John Fox agreed, almost verbatim, saying, “Once you get the little guys out there it's a little more inviting to run.”
New England converted a third-and-17 with a 19-yard run by tailback Danny Woodhead in the middle of the third quarter. Woodhead’s run kept alive what became a 16-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a Patriots touchdown and a commanding 24-7 lead.
The Patriots’ sudden ability to run the ball so effectively should put fear in the hearts of the other 31 teams in the NFL. If teams opt to key on trying to stop New England’s running game, Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd will quickly emerge and say, “Remember us?”
2. The Patriots are a better team when Wes Welker is a focal point of the offense.
After the first two weeks of the season it appeared that New England’s decision to not give Wes Welker a long-term contract was a smart move. After the last three games it looks foolish.
Consider that in the first two games of the year Welker tallied only eight receptions for 109 yards and the Pats went 1-1. In the last three games New England is 2-1 with their only loss coming by a single point (under circumstances of questionable officiating by a replacement crew) while Welker has notched 30 catches and 375 yards and a touchdown.
Denver had no answer on Sunday for Welker who finished the game with 13 catches for 104 yards and his first TD of the season. Broncos’ second-year cornerback Chris Harris – a fine young player in his own right – was completely over-matched. Welker did most of his damage in the first half snagging eight receptions and routinely helping sustain New England drives. With Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter doing a fine job containing New England’s outside receivers and a combination of linebackers and safeties keeping Gronkowski quiet, Welker was Brady’s go-to guy.
New England used their no-huddle offense for much of the game which seemed to jive nicely with Brady and Welker’s long-developed on-field chemistry.
3. Von Miller is very quickly establishing himself as one of the NFL’s elite defensive players.
On a day when Denver’s defensive short-comings were exposed and exploited, outside linebacker Von Miller shined. It is not a stretch to say that Miller, in only his second year, may very well be the league’s preeminent 4-3 outside linebacker.
Miller led the Broncos’ D with seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Yet the mark of a great player is not simply his ability to make big plays but rather to make big plays in big moments.
Like many of the other elite players in the NFL, Miller raises his game to the occasion.
In Denver’s week two loss to Atlanta, Miller sacked Matt Ryan on third-and-five late in the fourth quarter to force a Falcon punt and give Peyton’s offense a chance to win the game. On Sunday Miller again came up big late in the game at Gillette Stadium. Just before the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter Miller forced a Steven Ridley fumble that was subsequently recovered by Denver safety Mike Adams. The turnover put an end to a drive that should have ended in at least a New England field goal. Instead, thanks to Miller forcing the fumble, the Broncos took possession at their own 32.
Through the first five weeks of the season Miller has proven he is not merely a one-dimensional pass rusher. Yes, he excels at getting after the opposing quarterback but there is a lot more to his game. The 2011 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year has proven to be a force against the run (New England routinely ran to the opposite side of Miller) as well as solid in coverage where on Sunday he was matched up against Gronkowski on more than a few occasions.
The sky is the limit for Miller and it is safe to say that Broncos’ football boss John Elway hit a grand slam with his decision to select Texas A&M product second overall in the 2011 draft.
4. If you win the turnover battle you win the game the game.
Yes it is about as profound as saying that the sky is blue to point out creating turnovers leads to wins and, conversely, turning the ball over leads to losses. But that does not make it any less true.
Three times the Broncos gave the ball away on what could have, and frankly should have, been scoring drives. After beating double-coverage and snagging a perfect strike on a deep ball from Manning, DeMaryius Thomas fumbled inside the ten yard line on his way to the end zone. A potential touchdown became a turnover and a major momentum swing.
With New England up 24-7 and the Broncos reeling, Manning took a blindside hit and fumbled. The Pats recovered and, three plays later, scored their final touchdown of the game.
Running back Willis McGahee made two huge mistakes at the worst possible times. With Denver trailing by ten, 31-21, McGahee fumbled on a second-and-ten from the New England 14 yard line, killing a drive that should have resulted in at least a Denver field goal. The fumble essentially ended the game.
Two possessions prior, McGahee dropped a pass on a fourth-and-one that hit him right in the hands. New England took over on downs and ran three critical minutes off the game clock.
McGahee, a proud veteran who is very well-respected in the Denver locker room, did not mince words after the game saying, “ (On) That fumble (Ninkovich) just made a good play, I had it high and tight…but still you've got to be better than that.”
5. New England and Denver will both play in the postseason.
Without question, the Patriots are the class of the AFC East. With Buffalo and Miami looking like a pair of teams who will be picking in the top ten of the 2013 NFL Draft and the Jets continually adding even more rings to the circus that is their team, it is conceivable that New England clinches the division before Thanksgiving.
The Patriots are balanced on offense and are proving to be able to win games in a variety of ways. Unlike their recent past, the Pats can win games even when Brady doesn’t throw for 400-plus yards and five TDs. The 2012 Patriots look a lot more like their 2004 version than their 2007 version.
The Broncos are now through the most brutal part of a killer schedule. In the first five weeks, Denver has played four teams – Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston and New England – who expect to compete for the Super Bowl. The combined record of Denver’s opponents in their first give games is 15-7 (16-7 if Houston wins Monday night) or a .695 win percentage. If the Broncos can get a win next week at San Diego they can go into their bye week at 3-3 and will face a second half schedule against teams who are a combined 16-32.
It is entirely reasonable to assume that Denver will only get better as the season progresses. Manning and the offense will continue to develop chemistry and the expected returns of right guard Chris Kuper and outside linebacker D.J. Williams will bolster their respective units, to this point areas of the team that could described as weaknesses.
It is not only possible but probable that Sunday afternoon’s Denver-New England matchup was the first of two the teams will play this season.