The Morning After: Broncos Are Super Bowl Bound

No, you were not dreaming yesterday. The Denver Broncos are going to the Super Bowl.

There were certainly times when we had our doubts. We saw games the Broncos should have won, get away from them. We saw a defense that has mostly dominated, have its share of bad outings and wondered how long it would hold up. We debated endlessly about who should start at quarterback, who should play right tackle and which running back should get the bulk of the carries.

And, yet, here we are, headed to Super Bowl 50 for a matchup with the Carolina Panthers.

Just like people wouldn’t give credit where it was due to the Broncos when they faced Pittsburgh (no Antonio Brown!) and while a few will now, others still won’t for that win over New England (change one factor and Pats win!), there will be those who won’t give the Broncos their due as they face the Panthers.

We’ll talk more about the Panthers in the days to come, but let’s focus on what went down in Sunday’s AFC Championship game and why it’s dangerous to doubt the Broncos.

The Broncos pass rush is for real.

When your defensive ends and outside linebackers deliver 20-plus hits to the other team’s quarterback, that quarterback is going to have a hard time getting anything going. Tom Brady does deserve credit for getting two passes off to Rob Gronkowski on the Pats’ final drive, but he couldn’t do much otherwise unless he started with the ball in Broncos territory.

(ETA: As Barry Petchesky notes, no team has ever hit a quarterback 20 times in a single game in the last 10 years. Yes, this Denver defense is like no other.)

The return of DeMarcus Ware to the lineup has been a big reason why the Denver pass rush has been rejuvenated, as he had seven pressures and half a sack. Derek Wolfe keeps proving he deserved that big contract extension, with his four hits and one sack on Brady. Von Miller stood out, hitting Brady four times, getting 2.5 sacks and his interception in which Brady never saw him in coverage. Malik Jackson may not have had much from a statistical standpoint, but he was in Brady’s face just as much and his biggest play may have been his hit that led to Darian Stewart’s interception near midfield.

The Patriots’ inability to run the football (they averaged 2.5 yards per carry) forced Brady to do a lot of the work and he couldn’t get enough done to overcome the Broncos’ pass rush. As we have discussed several times here, the best way to disrupt a great passing game is with a great pass rush. That’s exactly what happened Sunday.

Gronk was great, every other Pats offensive player was ordinary.

We must give credit to Rob Gronkowski, who made two great catches to ensure both a fourth-down conversion when Brady threw deep (something Brady doesn’t do often and hasn’t done well when he’s had to) and the catch that led to the touchdown (and he had to work for the ball because Brady was pressured). Gronk even got open on the two-point conversion but Brady was forced from the pocket and never saw him, allowing Aqib Talib to tip a pass that looked like it was intended for Keshawn Martin, then Bradley Roby intercepted it.

Julian Edelman caught seven passes on 13 targets but seldom got yards after the catch to have an impact. He had his chance to convert a fourth-down play deep in Broncos territory, but Chris Harris saw the play develop and tackled him well short of the first down. Danny Amendola was limited to five catches on eight targets. The Patriots liked to use their running backs in the receiving game often, but James White caught just five passes on 18 targets.

Edelman’s return got talked up as the big reason why the Patriots were going to dominate offensively, but the truth is, the biggest loss the Pats had on offense was Dion Lewis, the only running back who could run well between the tackles and double as a quality route runner and pass catcher. LeGarrette Blount may have missed the game, but he is strictly a between-the-tackles runner and Steven Jackson wasn’t good enough to compensate. White and Brandon Bolden are good as receivers but can’t run well between the tackles and neither was as good as Lewis. Without Lewis in the lineup, the Patriots were limited to what they could do and the Broncos’ pass rush capitalized.

Winning the turnover battle was key.

When I talked about past matchups between the Broncos and Patriots in Denver, I noted that the winning team won the time of possession in seven of those matchups. In Sunday’s game, the Patriots barely won the time of possession (30:12 to 29:48). The penalty differential was about even, with each team committing seven penalties (Pats for 53 yards, Broncos for 51), so there wasn’t anything one-sided there.

What turned out to be the difference was the turnover differential. The Broncos did have a costly turnover when Peyton Manning threw a backwards pass to Ronnie Hillman, who couldn’t pull it in and let the ball go, as Jonathan Freeny scooped it up. Indeed, Hillman’s awareness needed to be better, but two things must be considered as well:

* The referees blew the play dead and it appears Hillman let it go for that reason.
* Even if Hillman does go for the ball, Freeny was hustling and could have come up with it.

I won’t belabor that point, though, and recognize that the turnover gave the Patriots their best field position they had all game.

But now the other side of the coin: Brady’s failure to recognize Von Miller’s presence in coverage led to an interception off which the Broncos capitalized. Then Jackson’s hit on Brady led to Stewart’s interception, which could have been a pick six had it not been for Edelman reaching out just enough to trip him. Getting those two interceptions, and the Broncos taking care of the ball from that point forward, were the key to ensuring a Broncos’ victory.

Owen Daniels was an unsung hero.

When you look at Daniels’ stat line, you don’t really see much there upon first glance: two catches for 33 yards. Of course, when you add the two touchdowns, it looks better. But if you really want to understand what made Daniels so valuable, it was how he took Jamie Collins to school.

Collins is good at run blocking and pass coverage and is a better pass rusher than some may think. He was instrumental in the run defense Sunday and he got to Peyton Manning several times. But when it came to pass coverage, he struggled. (And nobody gets to blame that on Collins’ back injury, because he was good in every other area.)

On the first touchdown, Daniels faked out Collins, who kept trying to read Peyton, and Collins got no safety help, resulting in an easy touchdown pass. Some blame can be given to how the Patriots defended the play overall, but Collins bears some responsibility as he was tasked with covering Daniels.

The second one, though, was entirely on Collins, as he lost Daniels on his route and the tight end took off, hauling in a perfect pass from Peyton. After that, the Patriots started lining up Devin McCourty on Daniels, with another safety coming in to provide help (this is how the Patriots were able to break up a third TD pass attempt to the tight end). The Patriots did recognize they need to adjust to defend Daniels, but give credit to Daniels for taking advantage on the two opportunities he got.

Nobody gets to talk “what ifs,” even if they’re based on facts.

You will hear from plenty of people who talk about “what if” when it comes to the Patriots, but even if you have facts to back them up, it doesn’t matter. What happens in a game is what happens in a game and you can’t go back and change it. We’ll start by reviewing a list of “what ifs” throughout the game and it will signal that you can’t just boil everything down to one play or coaching decision.

* Ronnie Hillman doesn’t pick up the lateral from Peyton Manning.
* Stephen Gostkowski misses an extra-point attempt.
* Tom Brady fails to see Von Miller dropping into coverage.
* Patriots leave Owen Daniels wide open.
* Danny Trevathan is flagged for illegal contact on third-and-nine.
* Demaryius Thomas bobbles a catch just enough for it be incomplete.
* Patriots use a time out on Denver’s field-goal attempt with 38 seconds left, then take a knee when they get the ball back after the kickoff despite having one time out left.
* Rather than go for it on fourth and one at the New England 46, Gary Kubiak decides to punt.
* Von Miller’s sack on Tom Brady drags him forward instead of backward for a potential safety.
* Peyton Manning can’t connect with Jordan Norwood for a fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
* Bill Belichick goes for it on fourth-and-one at the Denver 16 with 6:03 left.
* Demaryius Thomas commits a false start penalty at the Denver 18, turning third and nine into third and 14.
* James White fumbles the football but recovers it himself.

One could find even more examples, but the bottom line is this: You can’t go back and change anything, and to assume a different outcome if you change just one play or decision doesn’t mean a different outcome.

I will briefly address one decision: Bill Belichick was right to go for the fourth-down conversion with 6:03 left because, if he gets it, he has more chances to get the touchdown and attempt the two-point conversion at that point. He would have needed two scores to win, so why not go for the touchdown at that point? Had it been, say, fourth and five, Belichick might have kicked the field goal, but remember that if he kicks the field goal, the Broncos likely do things differently on offense because it’s a five-point game rather than an eight-point game and they really need to score again.

The game is in the books and the Broncos are on to the Super Bowl. Say what you want about Belichick, Brady and Gronkowski, but they were gracious in defeat and made no excuses. Those entitled Patriots fans need to learn something from the three people they put on a pedestal and quit looking for “what ifs.”

As for the Broncos, they get two weeks to prepare for the Carolina Panthers, who have the second-best defense in the NFL per Football Outsiders DVOA and the second-best offensive line as ranked by Pro Football Focus. Again, we’ll talk more later about Carolina, but right now, enjoy the moment, Bronco fans.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.