Perry's Report Card: Brady's day not as bad as you think
A plan well-executed
The plan did not seem all that complicated. Defensively, the Patriots wanted to make Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian sustain drives. Offensively they wanted to take advantage of a porous run defense and neutralize the Denver pass-rush.
Defensively, it could not have gone much more smoothly. Offensively, it wasn't pretty because -- as the Patriots coaching staff told its players before the game -- the Broncos pressure and coverage combination was the best they would see all year. But they avoided the big miscue (narrowly, at times) and were effective enough.
Let's hand out some grades and take a closer look at how the Patriots beat the Broncos to earn their eighth consecutive division title.
The goal? Play keep-away from Denver's top defenders. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady rarely tested either of the Broncos' top corners, Aqib Talib or Chris Harris Jr., and their quick-hitting passing game helped limit the amount of pressure outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware could generate. Last year's AFC title game this was not. Though Ware (three hurries) and Shane Ray (one sack, two hits, two hurries) had their share of success getting to Brady, they were a long way from ruining the Patriots game plan the way that Denver's pass-rush did a year ago in the playoffs. Miller was essentially a non-factor, recording just one pressure. The plan meant little in the way of work for Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell (three combined targets), and it didn't always work because even Denver's coverage underneath was solid. But Brady was kept upright and Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis and James White did enough to carry the load.
For all the impressive numbers the Patriots racked up with their performance in the win -- record for consecutive division titles, record division titles for a head coach -- among the more dubious was this was the lowest quarterback rating Brady had recorded in a win since 2009: 68.2. On 98.5 The Sports Hub (and simulcast on CSN) Tony Massarotti proclaimed it a bad game for the quarterback. I didn't see it that way. Early on, he missed throws on his way to going 0-for-6, but all incompletions are not created equal. He had a pass batted to start the game that was intended for Edelman but thrown into triple coverage when he might have had Hogan open for 15 yards. Not a great choice. His throw to White in the flat immediately thereafter was probably his worst of the game. On incompletion No. 3 he was rushed due to pressure from defensive tackle Adam Gotsis and missed White again. His next pass was to White and dropped. It may have come out a little bit hot, but he was under duress and typically White catches anything that hits his mitts. Brady couldn't connect with Bennett when the Broncos deciphered McDaniels' old ineligible receiver trick with Shea McClellin on the field, and White dropped another on Brady's sixth attempt. That pass could have been more accurate and led White toward the sticks on third down. Though White should have had it, part of that play's failure can fall on Brady's shoulders. He didn't need to keep the football away from the linebacker in coverage but he did, making the catch slightly tougher. After that, he warmed up, getting into rhythm with Edelman and making some very good throws into very tight windows: Edelman's 15-yard catch on the sidelines despite double-coverage was a gem of a throw and catch, and their connection on third down in the third quarter was apparent when Edelman found an opening for 17 yards as Brady scrambled; completed slants to White had to be on the money; and passes to Hogan and Mitchell (each had just one catch) were both accurate and helped save those players from taking big hits. Brady even made a wise decision to take what should have been an intentional grounding call when he threw to no one out of the back of the end zone. He was under pressure from Ware and instead of risking a strip-sack (or an injury) he got rid of the football. Had the penalty been called, it would have been a 31-yarder for Stephen Gostkowski, not a 21 yarder -- a negligible difference. It wasn't Brady's best effort, especially early, but he wasn't the reason they posted only 16 points. His receivers dropped five passes, and the Broncos' defense deserves credit. A lesser quarterback would have been forced into more mistakes.
RUNNING BACK: B+
Lewis has been one of the team's most efficient players since his return. He saw 20 touches on Sunday in just 28 total snaps, running for 95 yards and catching two passes for nine more yards. As an indication of just how often the Patriots are using Lewis when he's on the field, consider this: On a yards-per-snap basis, Lewis has a better average than Arizona's David Johnson, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell and Tennessee's DeMarco Murray. The sample size is still small, and Lewis doesn't see near the workload those players do, but when he's on the field he's getting a chance to make plays, and he's been productive in the chances he's received. White was once again more productive as a receiver (three catches, 24 yards) than a runner (three carries, 11 yards), seeing eight targets in the passing game as Brady looked to get rid of the football quickly. His two early drops didn't deter Brady from going to him later in the game, and he was nearly rewarded with a long touchdown on a slant but was barely tripped up by his shoestrings. LeGarrette Blount notched a team record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 15, but he wasn't the impactful player many believed he would be running for 31 yards on 17 carries. After alternating series with Lewis to start, Blount took a back seat until the end of the game with the Patriots trying to run out the clock. It became clear that with Denver's quick defense, Lewis was the better matchup.
Edelman continues to be Brady's go-to guy with Rob Gronkowski essentially unavailable since Week 10. He's seen 67 targets in the last five games, converting some key third downs to extend drives, and showing impressive toughness on a weekly basis. After taking a hard hit on an eight-yard completion over the middle, he had to come off the field, but he missed just one play. Though he dropped the next attempt sent his way, on the very next play, Brady found him for 17 yards to get the Patriots into field-goal range. Staying away from Harris and Talib, Edelman went to work against Denver's linebackers and safeties and Brady had no problem exploiting that matchup -- even when there were multiple bodies surrounding him. Hogan had a costly drop on one of just two targets he saw all day. Outside of Edelman, this was not good game to be a Patriots receiver. Just not much available in the way of breathing room. The No. 2 and 3 options will see better days against less talented corners going forward.
TIGHT END: C+
Martellus Bennett was once again not much of a factor as a receiver aside from one play-action pass he reeled in for a long 34-yard catch-and-run. He caught just one other ball for one yard. Bennett was once again a healthy-looking blocker, which is a good sign as the Patriots head down the stretch. That's two weeks in a row when Bennett has looked good in the trenches. He did his best work in the run game, but he also handled Miller without the need of any help on one pass play. Matt Lengel saw a season-high 15 snaps and released into routes a whopping nine times, including once when McClellin was on the field. That might've been his best shot at his first NFL reception, but the Broncos covered it well. He got an ear-full from Bennett when he lined up incorrectly and forced Brady to burn a timeout. James Develin, who we continue to factor into this group, did good work against defensive linemen and linebackers in the running game, playing a career-high 43 snaps.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
What a difference a year makes. Marcus Cannon drew some well-deserved praise from Bill Belichick and McDaniels on Monday for his work on Miller, pancaking the All-Pro on one snap and consistently either absorbing his spins or running his speed rushes past Brady. He picked up one false start penalty when the Patriots sent Cameron Fleming in motion, but was otherwise stout. Nate Solder was equally effective on the other side and continues to have a very good year in the running game. There appeared to be some level of confusion or miscommunication on one sack allowed by Joe Thuney, who lost track of defensive lineman Jared Crick as he ran around Solder, who was locked on with Ware. He was at least aware enough to fall on the resulting fumble after Brady was squished. Thuney was later beaten by Shane Ray (despite being called for a hold on Ray) for another sack. Thuney was impressive in the run game at times, but he allowed four additional hurries. Forgettable game for him in pass protection. David Andrews picked up a holding call and snapped the football when Brady wasn't ready for it, killing one third-down play before it got going. But the second-year center was solid yet again and did fine work with the silent snap count when needed, mixing up his timing.
Say this for Emmanuel Sanders and his post-game Twitter outburst: He wasn't completely wrong. The Patriots did play plenty of split-safety coverages, but so do a lot of other defenses and not all of them have held Sanders to one catch for seven yards through three quarters. Matt Patricia "spun the dial," as the Patriots say, deploying zone, man, split-safety and post-safety looks. With the combination of those varied coverages, often rushing just three or four, the Patriots were able to apply pressure on Siemian and make his decisions difficult. Without a running game, and with a well-timed turnover to start the second quarter, the Broncos seemed to be playing catch-up early.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
Trey Flowers is starting to garner the type of praise from teammates that is reminiscent of the way players spoke about Malcolm Butler early on in his career. Those who watch him closely seem to to believe he has what it takes to be special, and he was on Sunday, recording two sacks and narrowly missing a third. His length and relentless motor made him impossible for Denver to deal with. During the Monday Night Football broadcast, Jon Gruden called Flowers perhaps the team's best defender -- maybe taking a cue from someone he spoke with in the production meeting before the game? -- and he may not be all that far off at the moment. Jabaal Sheard's emergence in the last month has to be about as good as the Patriots could have expected for him to respond to his benching; he had a dominant second half, recording a sack, a pressure and drawing a hold on right tackle Donald Stephenson. He also nearly had a second sack but instead had to settle for forcing an intentional grounding call . . . Probably a little frustrating for a guy headed into unrestricted free agency after the season. Credit to Malcom Brown for leaving the game with stomach issues -- sometimes altitude can do that to a guy -- but coming back and having an impact. He cleaned up Flowers' would-be third sack, had a pressure and posted two run-stuffs. Alan Branch is still Mr. Consistency up front, batting down one pass and hurrying Siemian twice.
Dont'a Hightower took 42 snaps, a significant drop-off from the 70 he saw against Baltimore, and it's worth wondering if the knee injury he's dealing with needed the extra rest. Elandon Roberts saw 11 snaps early, but eventually gave way to Kyle Van Noy, who continues to be the No. 2 option at linebacker. The communication on the field seems to be smoother with Van Noy out there, and the team seems to like the veteran over the rookie in passing situations.
Butler may have had help over the top on multiple occasions, usually from Devin McCourty, but it was not for the entirety of the game. Butler saw Sanders in man-to-man on occasion and did a particularly good job of staying over the top of on Sanders' double move with about five minutes left in the third quarter, which fell incomplete at the sideline. Sanders clearly thought he had Butler beat on a handful of occasions when the pair were locked up, but Siemian either didn't feel like he had time to get Sanders the ball or didn't want to bother testing Butler. Whether Sanders wants to admit it or not, he was shut down, and 41 of his 48 yards came in the fourth quarter with the Patriots playing soft zone coverages and looking to prevent the big play. Logan Ryan's pick, in coverage of Sanders when the Broncos motioned Sanders away from Butler, was well-read. He had no real help over the top, and if Sanders made an out-and-up move, it might have been hard to stick with. Credit Ryan for going with his gut and making the hands catch to a) wipe points off the board for Denver, and b) set the Patriots up for their lone touchdown drive. Ryan also made a key third-down tackle in the first quarter, knocking old pal AJ Derby out of bounds in front of the sticks to help force a punt. After a herky-jerky season where he's seen his playing time fluctuate, Ryan has come on to be one of the team's best defenders since losing to Seattle. McCourty's pass breakup on Demaryius Thomas on fourth-down in the fourth quarter was due to a clean-yet-bone-rattling hit. He knows he doesn't have the reputation of being a big-hitter on the back end, but hits like that suggest otherwise. Eric Rowe isn't nearly as big, but he seems to play a style somewhat similar to former Patriots corner Brandon Browner just in terms of his physicality mid-route. He has plays that seem like they should be pass-interference calls every week, yet whether they actually are called seems to be a coin-flip. He was hit for a couple of third-down completions for 28 yards to Thomas, but he also broke up a long pass to Thomas. Jonathan Jones got the start for the Patriots in an eye-opening move. He was used as a blitzer early to little effect and had a hard time containing Justin Forsett's first run of the game, a 13-yarder.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
How important is ball-security in the kicking game? The Patriots are willing to expose their most valuable offensive weapon to big hits as a punt returner just to ensure that they'll maintain possession. Edelman fielded all seven Broncos punts cleanly, returning three for 21 yards, including a 16-yarder that brought them from their own 10 to their 26. It looks like his job until Danny Amendola can get back on the field healthy. On the coverage side of things Jones was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a Broncos muff in the first quarter, and Ryan Allen had a strong day punting, knocking three inside the Broncos 20. Field position was at a premium in a game like this, and the Patriots won that battle. Brandon Bolden, one of the team's best special-teamers, was called for a hold on one Edelman return, putting the Patriots back on their own 10-yard line. Otherwise, it was a stellar day for Joe Judge's group.