Well that was disappointing.
We didn’t get our high-flying high-scoring match of the titans. We didn’t get a defensive struggle either. In the end it was just 26-16, though the game was not nearly as close as the score suggests.
And in the end, New England Patriots fans will come away from this game, not with a sense of closure, but with a an overwhelming feeling, an uncontrollable itch, of “what might have been?”
By no means was this game won or lost on the back of one player, but it’s hard not to think that it would have been changed if Aqib Talib hadn’t been knocked out of the game early in the second quarter. With that particular injury, we could see a clear chain-reaction like orange and blue dominoes gleefully knocking into each other.
Without their star corner, Alfonzo Dennard was forced to match up with Demaryius Thomas. As much as I like Dennard, that’s a clear mismatch, and Manning exploited it readily. Post Talib’s injury, Thomas had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown on eight targets. With Manning rolling, the Broncos jumped to an early lead and the Pats had to play catchup, abandoning the run entirely. When the Pats failed to score, the Broncos controlled the ball. With the Pats playing in a sub package to defend the Broncos’ bevy of receivers, Manning basically went untouched, given all the time in the world to use his surgical arm.
But just look at that. Four paragraphs in and I’m already making excuses. The fact of the matter is that the Broncos deserved to win (I just stabbed my leg with a pen). They eliminated the Patriots’ best offensive strength (LeGarrette Blount finished the game with a paltry 6 yards on 5 carries) and their offense, while not explosive, was steadfast in their maintaining control of the game.
And the Pats couldn’t keep up. Too many missed tackles. Too many missed deep throws. Too many times the Broncos were allowed to escape on third down. We kept watching because we’d been trained to this entire season, no matter the odds, the Pats had always managed to make a game of it. But as Shane Vereen was stopped in a 2-point conversion attempt late in the 4th, and as Tom Brady bent over, hands on his knees, knowing that that was their last chance to stay with it, I felt my dad, a Patriots fan since his college days in Rhode Island, exhale slowly.
“Well,” he said.
As a final twist of the knife, it seems cruel that the Pats were hampered by another injury to a star player. It’s hard not to watch this game and wonder if Brady could have summoned another big play if he had Rob Gronkowski to throw to. If Vince Wilfork would have swallowed up Knowshown Moreno from snap one. If Jerod Mayo would have been that crucial linebacker in coverage, patrolling the middle of the field, an area Manning ruled today. And on, and on. With so much talent lost across the season, it’s amazing that the Patriots even managed to make it this far.
Which is why, as much as this game hurt, as much as it kills us that Peyton Manning will play in the Super Bowl, as much as this season feels like a lost opportunity, the truth of the matter is we should be more than optimistic about next season. Because all those players will be back. Because the Patriots have all of their draft picks in a deep class (totally going to end up writing a dozen draft previews in the next two weeks). Because the NFL’s second-youngest team will have another year under their belt. Because Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will have another year to stew in their bile, the chips on their shoulders, which have fueled them to unprecedented success, only bigger.
New England has some questions ahead of them (What to do about free agents Talib, Edelman, and Blount? Can they place all their hopes on everyone coming back healthy?) but there’s plenty of time to worry about that before the opening snap in the fall. For now, Patriots fans are left with a bitter taste in their mouths, even after one of the more impressive seasons Bill Belichick has coached, because we’ll have to watch Peyton Manning and Wes Welker and John Fox make their way to New Jersey to take on the NFC Champs (go 49ers) in the Super Bowl.
But it’ll probably get better.
I’ll be back later this week with a more in-depth (and coherent) evaluation of the 2013-14 season, with positional grades, and annual team awards. Until then, stay happy Pats fans.