January 20

Steve Solloway: Pats have no ‘next man up’ in this one

Defeat falls heavy on New England.

DENVER — Still believe Peyton Manning plays in Tom Brady’s shadow? Still think he can’t win big games often enough to be considered one of the NFL’s great quarterbacks?

Give Manning his due. The Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC championship, 26-16, partly because Manning’s passing kept Brady off the field and partly because he and his teammates simply played better.

The defeated Patriots said as much. They made no excuses as they quickly dressed and walked to their waiting buses. Plenty of regrets, yes. Bitter disappointment, absolutely. Denver goes to the Super Bowl in New Jersey in two weeks and the Patriots scatter across the country to their homes.

They couldn’t blame turnovers or questionable officiating or the dry and sunny late spring-like weather. They didn’t blame Wes Welker’s block on Aqib Talib that took away their best cornerback. It was a football play, although Coach Bill Belichick was visibly upset no penalty was called.

Someone goes down and the next man steps up.

The Patriots have looked to the next man up all season. Welker, one of Brady’s favorite targets, left for Denver and another pass-catcher had to step up. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the defensive backbone of the team, were lost to injury and others stepped up. Again and again.

Sunday, no one stepped up. If Brady was out of sync with his receivers and if running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount couldn’t find the holes to exploit, someone else needed to make the big play. No one else did on offense or defense.

So the Patriots blamed themselves and with their own words saluted the victors. “Losing is never easy,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, "but when you face someone as talented as (Manning) that puts in as much work and effort and has done it for so long, it’s a little bit easier to swallow.”

The Patriots couldn’t stop Manning. He completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards. He threw for two touchdowns. He was never sacked and rarely pressured. It didn’t matter if he was facing third down and long yardage and he did 15 times in the game. More than half the time Manning got the first down.

“You can’t win when you can’t get off the field,” said Ninkovich. “They had really good plays called.”

And when the Patriots offense did take the field, Brady wasn’t Tom Terrific. He overthrew receivers and threw some passes too short or too wide.

Instead of blaming their inexperience or unfamilarity, he blamed himself.

Brady finished with 24 completions on 38 attempts for 277 yards. Not a bad day’s work statistically. “I didn’t do enough to win,” said Brady. He was right.

The Patriots came back from a 24-point deficit to beat Denver during the season. Not this time. The best teams and players learn from defeat.

Manning and his teammates believed they were good enough to meet the Patriots a year ago in the AFC title game and win. Instead, Denver lost to Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens in double overtime. In the week leading up to Sunday’s game, Broncos players said little about the wrenching loss to Baltimore that ended the 2012 season. That doesn’t mean they forgot.

They had their foot on the Patriots’ throats by the end of the first half. They didn’t lift until the game ended.

Andre Carter, the backup defensive end, thought the Patriots were in the game at halftime. The score was 13-3.

“The game was still up for grabs,” said Carter. “But in the second half, they were able to make plays when needed. They controlled the clock.”

The Patriots scored twice in the fourth quarter but Denver was trading points for time off the game clock. Brady couldn’t find the quick strike in his playbook this time. The Patriots defense still couldn’t stop Manning.

All game long it seemed Manning and the Denver defense were two steps ahead of the Patriots.

Brady was only sacked twice, but both killed drives. A two-point conversion attempt by the Patriots was stopped. If this was a chess game, the Patriots were always in check and finally, checkmate.

For the Patriots, the game, the matchup between quarterbacks, and the season are over. 

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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