by Dillon Meehan
Heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, the narrative surrounding the final meeting between Brady and Manning was that the Patriots, despite poor play for the last half of the season, were going to easily take care of the Broncos. Fast forward to today, and a pair of coaches who were unemployed and kicked to the curb years ago thoroughly outsmarted the greatest mastermind of this generation. In fact, they out-coached him.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak and his defensive coordinator Wade Phillips were both fired in 2014 from those same positions they hold now, when they led the Houston Texans to an abysmal 2-14 performance. When Kubiak became the Broncos’ head coach last January, he brought his old defensive coordinator back after being out of the league for a year. It appears as though the decision to hire Phillips was the right one, despite all of the flak the organization received from the media.
Apart from the narrative regarding the game being a breeze for New England, another narrative was the Broncos’ inability to score, with many pundits believing 21 points was the cap for the team. Because of this, Bill Belichick, who usually defers for the second half, opted to take the ball first. Showing that the Pats were averting from their usual game plan.
From the opening snap, it became apparent that Patriots offensive tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon simply could not contain either DeMarcus Ware or Von Miller. And the Patriots elected to not keep a running back or tight end to help chip in, forcing Cannon and Vollmer to do an impossible task. Miller was a force for three and a half quarters, where as Ware took over in the final quarter and it became apparent that the future Hall of Famer had Brady’s snap count figured out.
Brady was hit 23 times Sunday; that’s the highest total number since they started tracking the stat a decade ago. For perspective, Brady was only hit 14 times during the entire 2014 post-season run and was only hit once last week against Kansas City.
The Broncos’ bombardment got into Brady’s head and forced him into making even quicker decisions, including the interception to Von Miller, which lead to the Broncos’ second score.
The Patriots wasted little time finding a scapegoat; offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was let go Monday night, just 24 hours following the game.
Because of the pressure Miller and Ware were creating, this allowed Phillips to create exotic defensive fronts to hide their coverage’s and often times only bring three or four defenders, while keeping seven or eight back in coverage. The Broncos blitzed 42 percent of the time, the fourth most in the regular season. But on Sunday, the Broncos only blitzed on 16 percent of drop backs — that’s the lowest amount in nine years for a Wade-Phillips-coached team.
The lack of blitzing defenders allowed for the Broncos to focus on the Patriots’ offensive weapons. On a third of Brady’s dropbacks, the Broncos only brought three defenders allowing an eight player in coverage. This often meant Rob Gronkowksi was being double-, if not triple-teamed, forcing Brady to hold onto the ball and take hits.
It is a rare occasion to see Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels out-coached so badly. There have been times where they made the wrong play or underestimated their opposition, but never for a full 60 minutes. That was ultimately the Patriots undoing.
As for Denver, Carolina’s offensive line is nowhere near as bad as the Patriots, which is going to put more pressure on Peyton Manning and the Broncos to score several times against a defense that just picked off Carson Palmer four times and forced seven turnovers.
Although it would be a great story for Manning to win the Super Bowl at 39 and retire just like his boss John Elway, it’s tough to imagine a scenario where it would happen against a strong all-around team like the Panthers. However, that was the narrative last week as well.