When New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib went down with a knee injury in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game on Sunday, hearts all over New England sank - because memories are long when it comes to bad losses.
|Brady and the passing game was out of sync until it was too late|
And Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning could be excused for going right to work on the rest of the New England secondary. But in keeping with their mode of operation for the season, the Patriots defense bent plenty, but more times than not didn't break...
...allowing just 13 points in the first half and an equal number in the second - the 26 points allowed a plenty good enough effort for the New England Patriots offense to top, right?
Not on this day, not with the Patriots' offense out of sync from the very start, not without a running game and certainly not with quarterback Tom Brady under siege and off target - and by the time they found any rhythm the Denver Broncos were all but on the plane and headed to New York.
The Broncos' 26-16 win on Sunday afternoon in Denver was more a matter of of poor execution on both sides of the ball and even worse offensive play calling - the entire game a synopsis of everything that went bad for New England during the course of the season.
Injuries, of course, were the main story line all season, and the injury to Talib on what was essentially a pick play by former Patriots' receiver Wes Welker was his greatest contribution on the day, a blindside shot to the ribs that ended the Patriots' shutdown cornerbacks' game before it really even got started.
The defense had no answer for Denver's passing game after that, but did what they had to do to give the team a chance - getting off of the field on third down just as often as not, and holding the potent Denver offense to three field goals in five red zone trips, yielding just two touchdowns overall.
The problem being not so much the amount of yardage given up to set to the red zone, and not even the amount of time they allowed Denver to eat up on those drives - rather, the offense failing to generate any momentum or points when they got their opportunities until the game had been all but decided.
It's not as if the Patriots receivers weren't open - they were - but in calling just 16 running plays, the offense had no balance and the pass rush started getting to Brady. He was sacked just twice, but those came in the most critical of circumstances, both ending drives and taking them out of field goal range...
...but he was upright most of the game - mostly because Denver was respecting the run even if New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn't - but started taking a beating after releasing throws as the offensive line started to tire from hand-to-hand combat with the Broncos' pass rushers, many off-target on wide open throws down the field.
When Brady did start to connect he was razor sharp - of course, the Broncos had a three score advantage by that time and was playing off-coverage to prevent the long throws downfield - the same throws that Brady missed the opportunity on earlier in the game.
But in the end, it was loss of Talib that doomed a Patriots' team with no continuity or balance on offense - and Patriots' fans can't help but think that Wes Welker put the fork to them one last time - taking out their best pass defender away from the play.
It doesn't matter if it was an illegal pick, nor that a flag was not thrown - because breaking Talib was the beginning of the end for New England, and that's worth a five-yard penalty any day of the week.