Best and worst: Broncos 20, Patriots 18
BEST Mind pretzel
With Ty Law serving as honorary captain of the Patriots on Sunday, he went out for the coin toss. Obviously, Peyton Manning didn't go out there. The last thing Manning wants to hear is more Ty Law trash talk that's probably been haunting him throughout his career. But anyways, the Patriots won the toss (duh). But get this . . . Bill Belichick elected to receive. Whaaaaaaaaaat? Bill -- why? Don't mess with success, my man. I don't care if it has to do with the sun, or the wind, or the altitude. The Patriots defer.
BEST early sign
Jamie Collins was one of 42 Patriots listed as questionable heading into Sunday's game. But Collins, who injured his back last week against the Chiefs, is a huge part of the defense. Word trickled out shortly before the game that Collins looked and felt good going into the game. Then on the first drive, we all got our own proof. Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman took a handoff from Peyton Manning and was immediately met by Collins, who got into the back field and stuffed Hillman for a one-yard loss. He really hit him, too.
OK, that wasn't supposed to happen. The Broncos -- not the Patriots -- drive 83 yards over 11 plays and score the game's first touchdown. Peyton Manning hit Owen Daniels for a 21-yard strike in what could be considered the least likely of touchdown scenarios. Owens put a little shake on Collins, Collins bit and started in, Owens kept going and Manning hit him wide open into the end zone. It looked like there was a little coverage issue, as Rob Ninkovich was out in no man's land, too. The Pats played some sketchy defense on the opening drive. They played back on Broncos receivers, allowing Manning to throw under them and march down the field. Bizarre stuff. First the coin toss, now the defensive game plan.
I'm not sure how smart Ronnie Hillman is. He could be a really smart guy. But his mind went blank for a second out there on the football field, and it cost his team dearly. Manning's pass to Hillman behind Denver's 28-yard line did not go forward, so when it bounced off Hillman's hands and onto the floor, Hillman should have scooped it up or fallen on it. Instead, he stood there. Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny picked it up and headed for the end zone. Since NFL officiating is incompetent, they blew the play dead. But Belichick threw the challenge flag and sure enough the call was reversed. Patriots ball. Huge swing there.
BEST necessary touchdown
You gotta make the Broncos pay the ultimate price for a turnover in their own end, and the Patriots did that. A pass from Brady to Bolden Bolden had Bolden stumbling down to the two-yard line. T.J. Ward's unnecessary hit on Bolden then put the ball on the 1-yard line, and Steven Jackson pounded it in for the score.
WORST Stephen Gostkowski impression
I don't care what anybody tells me: Stephen Gostkowski did NOT miss that extra point. Why? The guys doesn't miss extra points, that's why. Coming into the game he had converted on 523 straight extra points, or every single one dating back to the 2006 season. So when the extra point went wide right, I needed to know who the imposted wearing Gostkowski's uniform is. Billy Cundiff? REVEAL YOURSELF.
WORST Tom Brady impression
Tom Terrific? Not right now. With New England deep in its own territory, Brady felt the pocket closing around him and threw one to Rob Gronkowski. The only problem was Von Miller stuck with Gronk and the pass ended up right in his hands. The Broncos take over with just 16 yards to the end zone.
One Peyton Manning to Owen Daniels touchdown was bad enough. But two? C'mon! Again, Daniels fooled Collins with a little fake and was open in the corner of the end zone from 12 yards out. Yeesh. Maybe Collins isn't as healthy as we hoped after that big tackle on Hillman. The Broncos now lead, 14-6, and it's safe to say nobody outside of Denver saw this coming.
Before I begin on the worst decision, let me be clear that the Patriots offensive line has been atrocious in this game. Every time you look, Brady is getting hit -- and hit hard. Derek Wolfe is feasting. THAT SAID . . . Brady is not helping himself by chucking footballs into traffic. He saw pressure coming and unloaded one down the sideline that was picked off by Darian Stewart. Bad decision by Brady, who should have just thrown it away. He's not getting the time he needs to make the accurate throws.
BEST way to make up for the coin toss
Listen, nobody liked that Belichick chose to receive to start the game. And with the Broncos kicking a field goal in the final minute of the first half, it only compounded the issue. Denver had ball to begin the second half but failed to score on two straight possessions thanks to a great defensive stand by the Patriots. Collins sacked Manning on 2nd-and-10 for a 13-yard loss, and C.J. Anderson could only get eight yards on third down, forcing a Broncos punt.
After a 53-yard punt, the Patriots took over on their own 33-yard line and marched 47 yards in eight plays to set up a Stephen Gostkowski 38-yard field goal. The kick was good, and the Patriots cut the lead to 17-12 with 10:31 remaining in the third quarter. So it's almost like they deferred and went on a 4:29 opening drive… right?…
BEST way to give yourself a chance
It's never ideal to give up points, but if the Patriots were going to do it, it's good they clamped down in the red zone and forced the Broncos to settle for a field goal. Denver had 1st-and-goal from the 10-yard line and New England held strong on three straight plays. They stuffed Anderson for a three-yard loss and then forced Manning into two incompletions. Brandon McManus then kicked a 31-yard field goal to go up eight points. Still a one-possession game.
BEST decision, but WORST play
Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 on Denver's 16-yard line was one of those should-he-or-shouldn't-he kinda plays. With just over six minutes to go in the game, the Pats could have tried for a field goal and cut the lead to five points. But Belichick knew how hard it was for his offense to drive down the field in this game. Their one touchdown drive came after a turnover that put them just 22 yards from the end zone. So he went for it. But the play . . . stunk. The Pats went with a play-action, and nobody believed it - why would they? Brady just got it off to Julian Edelman before he was hit, but it was caught behind the line of scrimmage and he was immediately tackled before the first down. Some people (*cough* my boss *cough*) think they should have kicked the field goal there. I don't. But I think they should have went shotgun and spread it out.
BEST game-tying drive, almost
So the Patriots are still down eight points because they went for it on 4th down - twice - and failed to convert both times. But with ball on the 50-yard line and one timeout, Brady and the Pats had a prayer left. On 4th-and-10, he hit Gronkowski down the middle for 40 yards. Insane. And then on 4th-and-4, he hit Gronk in the end zone. Love ya, Gronk. But the Pats needed a two-point conversion to tie it up (Gostkowski's missed field goal rearing its ugly head here…). Brady, facing pressure for the 2,592 time today, threw it into traffic intend for Julian Edelman. It was intercepted. And after the Broncos recovered the onside kick, that would be all.
WORST way to end the season
This one hurts. There are about a million things you can point to as to why the Patriots lost today. Start with the game being in Denver. They've stunk there historically, and they stunk there again. Tom Brady is now 2-7 there! They also played soft on defense in the first half. Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point that ended up being the difference in the game. The offensive line was overwhelmed for 60 minutes. Tom Brady was hit hard and rushed throughout, making a couple uncharacteristic mistakes, too. Give credit to the Broncos. Peyton Manning played a heck of a lot better than anybody thought he would. And as it has all season, the Broncos defense did the rest. How sweet it would have been for Roger Goodell to hand the Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots . . . on to next season.