If a shootout is how you propose to win a football game, then at some point the offense needs to hold the football for a prolonged period of time. At some point, trips into enemy territory need to end in touchdowns far more frequently.
At some point, the metaphoric gun needs to go boom repeatedly, and numbers need to be posted on the scoreboard. Because if stopping the opposition from scoring points can’t happen, then scoring a lot of your own points has to happen.
Today, the New England Patriots did neither.
With their various injuries and the equally multiple weapons boasted by the Denver Broncos, from the beginning it felt as though the only chance New England had in the AFC Championship game (otherwise known as the game with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) was to do all the things that lead to lengthy drives, and points. Scoring and scoring some more would have both matched Manning’s cannon fire, and likely limited it by keeping him on the bench.
Instead it was Brady sitting, watching, sulking, and eventually igniting the Internet’s many GIF machines with a glorious facepalm, one captured in the beauty of slow motion technology.
The eventual final score of 26-16 will make this game seem far closer than it really was when history looks back on it. Of those 16 Patriots points, 14 of them came in the fourth quarter when Brady led two 80-yard drives that culminated in touchdowns. The other three quarters were the problem, both offensively and defensively.
Stopping Manning just wasn’t happening, and that was apparent immediately. He finished with 400 passing yards, becoming the first quarterback all season to reach that mark against this Patriots defense, and midway through the second quarter he already had 141 yards. Eventually the injuries sustained by the Pats’ defense would lead to breaking after we all spent a season marveling about this scrappy little bunch, and the emergence of guys like Jamie Collins. It seems that time came when Aqib Talib went down.
Talib’s absence wasn’t at all the sole reason for Manning’s brilliance. Nope, not even a little bit. Even a fully functioning Talib would have struggled to keep up with Demaryius Thomas and match his physicality. But a busted up rib later, and that tasked became impossible.
Thomas finished with 134 receiving yards, the fourth time this season he’s passed the 120-yard mark, and he was central in one of the three drives that sealed this game. Two of them were long both in yards, and time.
The first came on the Broncos’ opening possession of the second quarter. Slowly meandering down the field one “Omaha!” at a time…
— Omaha Steaks (@OmahaSteaks) January 19, 2014
…Manning only needed to complete four passes, with Knowshon Moreno chugging for 43 of his 59 rushing yards on just this one drive, most of which came on a game-high 28 yard run. Of the Broncos seven third-down conversions, four were on this drive, and it was also a drive that featured randomness in the form of a Virgil Green run, and a touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme. The numbers on the drive: seven points, 15 plays, 93 yards, and 7:01 of game clock gone.
The very next drive went for swiftness over longevity. With all three of his timeouts left and 2:54 remaining in the first half, Manning had the ball on his own 20 yard-line. A penalty then backed him up 10 yards, making the prospect of getting points in a hurry less than promising. Two completions to Demaryius Thomas later with plenty of chunky yardage after the catch for a combined total of 53 yards, and the Broncos were in field-goal range. Even better, Brady was given just 25 seconds at the end of the half for heroism of his own. The numbers on that drive: three points, 73 yards (all by way of Manning’s arm), and 2:29 of game clock.
Brevity was then shunned again to start the second half. In the middle of a stretch when he completed 19 straight passes, Manning began the third quarter with another methodical drive. This time of his seven completions during an 80-yard march, the longest was a still moderate 18 yards, with the series culminating in a three-yard touchdown to Thomas, one of two Manning threw while he completed 74.4 percent of his passes on the day. One more time, the numbers: seven points, 13 plays, 7:08 of game clock gone.
There have been 3 playoff games in NFL history where a QB threw for 400 yards and completed 70% of his passes. Peyton has two of the three.
— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) January 19, 2014
The two longer drives put 14 puts on the board, but perhaps even more importantly and impressively, they erased nearly a full quarter’s worth of game time (14:09).
Brady was reduced to more and more of that facepalming on the bench while sitting, watching, and waiting. In fairness, his own offense was partly responsible early, as they exited on three-and-outs on their first two drives, already equalling their per game average throughout the regular season.
Brady doesn’t play defense, though, and he wasn’t assigned to avoid absolute embarrassment against Manning, the now AFC champion quarterback who completed passes to eight different receivers, pushing along an offense that averaged 7.1 yards per play. Brady isn’t a running back either, but LeGarrette Blount is, and after running for 355 yards and six touchdowns over his last two games, he recorded just six yards on five carries. Yes, Virgil Green matched his rushing total. That is not good.
Earlier this morning when I wrote the primer for this game, I explored the discussion of legacy, and what this game meant for how history views each quarterback in perhaps their last playoff meeting. That question is still impossible to define, but since everything has to have a title and deeper meaning, there’s an immediate reaction to assign a label to a single game. All I know right now is this: Peyton Manning and his Broncos have moved on to the Super Bowl, John Fox has joined a select group of coaches to guide two different teams to a championship game, and Tom Brady goes home with his Patriots largely because of defensive circumstances far removed from his control.
They’re both still generation defining, hall of fame quarterbacks. That didn’t change today.