Mile High Letdown

(C) Wikimedia Commons
Written by Dakota Randall

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

The Patriots, spearheaded by a seemingly unwavering thirst for revenge after the now year-long (and still ongoing) “Deflategate” saga, were supposed to emerge triumphant at Super Bowl 50. A legion of fans craving to see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fork over the Lombardi Trophy to Tom Brady. The ultimate payback.

A date with the Denver Broncos to decide the AFC Champion was seen by many as nothing more than a formality.

A week after the Patriots’ offensive line looked like they’d finally turned a corner against a strong Chiefs defense, it was reasonable to assume that Brady would stand behind his bodyguards and slice up the Broncos’ revered defense with relative ease.

Unfortunately for Brady and the Patriots, nothing went quite according to plan.

The pocket more often than not resembled a mosh pit at a rock concert and the game a dogfight that the team was ill-equipped to deal with.

The Broncos utilized a variety of coverages, anchored by a pass rush that rattled Brady with a combined 41 sacks, hits, and hurries, to defeat the Patriots 20-18 in a game that never really felt in control.

Denver’s defense was able to do this while rarely sending more than four pass rushers at a time. With the benefit of being able to get home with just a few linemen, the Broncos were able to drop extra men into coverage, a technique made famous by Tom Coughlin’s Giants in the 2007 Super Bowl, and used with repeated success by Rex Ryan’s teams in the years since.

The Broncos rushed three defenders 14 times against the Patriots. Prior to Sunday’s game, Denver had sent only three pass rushers just 14 times all season. Against the three-man rush, Brady was 4-13 with an interception and a sack.

Von Miller, who finished with 2.5 sacks, dropped back into coverage a season-high nine times on Sunday. One of those times resulted in a crucial interception of Brady that lead to Owen Daniel’s second touchdown on the afternoon.

Fans have been quick to pin the loss on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who missed an extra point in the first quarter. Prior to the miss, Gostkowski had converted an NFL-record 523 consecutive extra point attempts.

Though the missed PAT did come back to haunt the Patriots, this was a team-wide failure in all phases of the game.

The offense’s struggles were easily the most glaring. And though the Patriots’ defense played well, particularly in the second half, their failure against Denver’s red-zone offense in the first half was countered by the Bronco’s ability to stymie the Patriots on multiple red-zone chances in the fourth quarter. It took two miracle fourth-down plays to Rob Gronkowski in the game’s final moments for the Patriots to finally break through.

The Patriots also lost the battle of field position throughout the game. Though both teams’ punters averaged about 46 yards per punt, Denver’s Britton Colquitt was able to pin the Patriots inside the 20-yard line four times on Sunday, while the New England’s Ryan Allen was able to do so just once. There were multiple times when Allen was backed up deep in New England’s side of the field and could only manage mediocre kicks.

Even with Peyton Manning’s obvious deteriorating arm-strength and the struggles of Denver’s offense as a whole, allowing your opponent to start a majority of their drives from mid-field is a recipe for disaster.

It’s hard not to believe that if the game were played in Gillette Stadium, there would’ve been a different outcome. The combination of Denver’s crowd noise and the Patriots’ offensive-line issues had Brady and the whole offense visibly out of sync from the very beginning.

The Patriots deserve all the blame for the game not being played on their home field. Uncharacteristic losses to the Eagles, Jets and Dolphins in the season’s final weeks doomed New England in the end. A team that is normally at its best against divisional foes needed only one victory against its AFC East rivals in the final two weeks, but injuries and a frustratingly conservative approach led to losses in both games, handing Denver the AFC’s top seed.

So where does the team go from here?

It’s not all gloom and doom for the Patriots after Sunday’s defeat. In fact, the future appears much brighter.

Aside from negotiations for contract extensions of key defenders Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and potentially Chandler Jones, the Patriots have few concerns this offseason. The team still has no player earning a salary that ranks in the top-50 of the league (seriously), and despite having forfeited their first-round draft pick, the Patriots’ routine manipulation of the draft board leaves little doubt that they will make the best of the picks available to them.

The most glaring need is perhaps the offensive line. Other than first-round pick Nate Solder and second-rounder Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots have not prioritized the offensive line with many of their higher picks or through free agency. The almost immediate firing of o-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo shows that the team recognizes the importance of keeping its 39-year-old quarterback upright in an offensive that is predicated on releasing and moving the ball as quickly as possible.

The team has a ton of free salary cap space, and its top free agents are Legarrette Blount and in-season waiver claim Akiem Hicks. If management deems it necessary, they have the tools and resources to make a splash in the free agency or trade markets.

So while Sunday’s loss was “bittersweet,” according to Bill Belichick, the future remains bright in Foxborough, and the championship window is as open as ever. The AFC East is still devoid of a legitimate NFL quarterback, and the rest of the conference really can’t say much different. The teams that do have potential champion signal-callers (Colts, Bengals, Ravens) are too plagued by inconsistency to be considered real threats to the Patriots.

Barring the unforeseen (though still inevitable) decline of Tom Brady, the Patriots should be the front-runners for a return to the Super Bowl in 2017.

It just won’t feel nearly as gratifying.

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