By Gregory Hunt

In a match-up between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, Sunday’s AFC Championship Game turned out to be a defensive struggle in which the Denver Broncos came away with a 20-18 win at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. At the beginning of the season, the high-powered Patriots offense drew comparisons to the 2007 Patriots that scored nearly 37 points per game, but in the end, Denver’s elite defense earned the Broncos a trip to Super Bowl 50.

Offense: C

Brady was under fire from the Denver pass rush most of the day, getting sacked four times. At one point, New England’s Cameron Fleming was brought into the game as an extra tackle to assist Marcus Cannon, but Fleming was still badly beaten by Denver linebacker Von Miller, who sacked Brady at the New England two-yard line. Brady got fooled in the second quarter when Miller unexpectedly dropped back into coverage and intercepted a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady’s second interception came when he received heavy pressure from Denver defensive end Malik Jackson, and that interception led to Denver’s second and final touchdown of the game. Brady did eventually throw for 310 yards, but every yard was a struggle.

New England’s biggest playmaker was Gronkowski, who caught eight passes for 144 yards. His biggest catches both came in the fourth quarter, and both of them occurred on fourth down on New England’s final drive—a 40-yard reception that put New England on the Denver 10-yard line, and he followed that up with an impressive touchdown catch against double coverage for a touchdown.

As has been the case since running back Dion Lewis was placed on injured reserve in early November, New England’s rushing game was non-existent. Running back Stephen Jackson did get a one-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter, but the Patriots averaged only 2.6 yards per carry on 17 attempts, and Brady ended up being the team’s leading rusher with 13 yards. New England converted only two of 15 third-down opportunities.

Defense: B

For most of the game, New England successfully kept Denver’s running game in check. The Patriots made five tackles for losses against the run and held the Broncos to 3.3 yards per rush on 30 attempts. Denver did gain 99 yards rushing, but 30 of them came on a C.J. Anderson run in the fourth quarter that set up a field goal. That score was Denver’s final score of the game, and it gave the Broncos just enough of a cushion to hold on for a two-point win.

New England’s pass rush wasn’t as relentless as Denver’s, but New England did sack Manning three times. Two of those sacks were by linebacker Jamie Collins in the second half; both of those sacks blew up Denver drives and kept New England in the game. Overall, cornerback Logan Ryan played a solid game, but in the first quarter he committed a pass interference call on third down that led to Denver’s first touchdown of the game. Fellow cornerback Malcolm Butler, who also played well, misplayed a 50/50 ball in the first quarter to allow a 34-yard reception by Emmanuel Sanders, but the New England defense stiffened to force a punt on that drive.

The nemesis for the Patriots turned out to be Denver tight end Owen Daniels. He caught only two passes, but both of them went for touchdowns after double-moves fooled his New England defenders.

Special Teams: C-

For the most part, the punting game was strong. Brandon King made a pair of impressive tackles on Denver punt returns, and in the first quarter Danny Amendola made a couple of shifty moves to return a punt 28 yards to the New England 40. However, when New England was backed up deep in its own territory late in the second quarter, punter Ryan Allen managed only a 39-yard punt, and that set up a Denver field goal shortly before halftime.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made field goals of 38 and 46 yards, but in the first quarter he missed his first extra point in 523 attempts dating back to 2006. Thus, when the Patriots subsequently found themselves down by two points after scoring a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining in the game, they were forced to attempt a two-point conversion, but it failed when Brady’s pass attempt to wide receiver Julian Edelman was tipped by former New England cornerback Aqib Talib.

Coaching: D

Head coach Bill Belichick made a surprising call by electing to receive the opening kickoff after winning the coin toss, but his best call might have been challenging a play on a Manning pass that was initially ruled as incomplete. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny made a clear recovery of the ball at the Denver 22-yard line, so New England was awarded the ball at that location after winning the challenge. That reversal set up New England’s first touchdown of the game.

Belichick’s most questionable call was trying to convert a 4th-and-1 from the Denver 16-yard line with 6:03 remaining in the fourth quarter. Because of Gostkowski’s missed extra point earlier in the game, New England was down by eight points at the time (20-12), so the Patriots were already in a position where they needed to score twice if they were unable to convert a two-point conversion. A field goal at that point would have reduced the deficit to five, and given how well the New England defense was playing at the time, the Patriots could have found themselves in a position to subsequently make a game-winning touchdown.

New England’s 4th-down play failed to convert, yet the Patriots defense gave the offense two more chances to overcome that eight-point deficit. The next drive ended on a turnover on downs at the Denver 14-yard line with 2:18 remaining. New England finally scored a touchdown on its final drive with 12 seconds remaining to make it a two-point game, but the two-point conversion failed. If New England had kicked field goals on either of those first two red-zone drives in the fourth quarter, Gronkowski’s late touchdown could have been a game-winner.

Looking ahead

Of the 18 New England players set to become free agents, none of them were major contributors on either offense or defense this season, so expect the Patriots to contend for an AFC Championship again next season. The highest-paid player on the list is offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, but he played only 13 snaps this season due to an early-season illness and a subsequent knee injury that put him on injured reserve. Of the eight players that are unrestricted free agents, the one that the Patriots are most likely to re-sign is special teamer Nate Ebner.

The biggest hole on New England’s roster is at running back, so the Patriots will likely not re-sign 29-year-old LeGarrette Blount and hope that the 25-year-old Lewis can come back from his injury. The Patriots don’t have a first-round pick in the upcoming draft, but don’t be surprised if New England picks a running back in the second round.

Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.

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