Clutch Encounters: AFC Championship Game
by Scott Kacsmar
We had a great run of eight straight NFC Championship Games decided by no more than seven points, but what a dud we saw in Carolina on Sunday with the Cardinals losing 49-15 (another unique score bites the dust). Every time Arizona looked to have a fighting chance, a turnover happened, and it usually came from Carson Palmer, who may have achieved the unfortunate act of playing his worst game (a career-high six turnovers) in the biggest game of his career.
Fortunately, the Denver Broncos played in yet another close game (now 12-3 in those contests) to give us something to recap from Championship Sunday. Denver's 11th win of the season by no more than seven points (including playoffs) is a new single-season record, breaking a tie with the 2003 Panthers and 1978 Oilers. John Fox coached those Panthers, and Wade Phillips was on his dad Bum's staff with Houston. Is it not amusing to see the Broncos essentially perfect "Fox Ball" after firing Fox? Yet nothing has done more to get Denver back to the Super Bowl than the hiring of Phillips to run this talented defense.
A year after the Patriots won the Super Bowl by creating the costliest interception in NFL history, they fell short here, throwing an interception on the most important two-point conversion play ever run.
Clutch Encounters of the Losing Kind
Patriots at Broncos: The Conclusion to Brady-Manning
I say it every time they meet: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady never have shootouts. One team, usually New England, takes control early and you are likely to see a big comeback attempt in the second half. On Sunday, this fittingly may have been the worst combined level of play from the two quarterbacks since the first meeting in 2001 or the first playoff meeting in 2003 as the two defenses just dominated the game.
In Manning's previous five wins against Brady, he passed for 400, 327, 349, 326, and 321 yards while his teams averaged 33.2 points. Those numbers feel impossible for this version of Manning, and despite some good early play, he finished with just 176 yards, snapping his 14-game streak of 200-yard passing games in the postseason. He even took three sacks that lost 31 yards, his second most in a playoff game as he ate the ball on some plays instead of chancing anything.
Again, though, Manning got through a game without throwing an interception. He won the playoff rubber match with the type of safe, game manager approach for which Brady was once lauded years ago. Brady had 63 dropbacks, threw two bad interceptions in the first half, and suffered four sacks and a ridiculous 20 more hits (most in a game this season) from a relentless Denver rush. The Broncos ranked first in pressure rate (34.7 percent) this season for a reason. The Patriots were just 2-of-13 on third down in their first loss in Denver this season, and things were even worse in this game with a 2-of-15 conversion rate. Brady had some better hot streaks in the second half, but was rattled early.
Brady's success rate vs. DEN 1st half - 8/23 2nd half - 16/40 Definitely some better streaks after halftime.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 25, 2016
As I stressed in our preview, Denver's 30-24 win in Week 12 was a misleading offensive score as each team had 15 possessions. In this 20-18 final, each team had 14 possessions, so scoring was even more inefficient. The short fields were a factor again too, with each team having a touchdown drive of no more than 22 yards. None of New England's four scoring drives covered more than 50 yards. The Broncos finished with 244 yards of offense, period.
The Unusual Contributions
For better or worse, in a game like this you expect to see some unexpected contributions, whether from a less important player or an established player doing something unusual. This game had its share of that, especially in the early going.
Bill Belichick's decision to receive after winning the coin toss instead of New England's usual deferment was the first shock of the day. It backfired too, with the Patriots quickly punting and Denver taking a 7-0 lead after a great 83-yard drive. The Broncos also scored before halftime with a field goal, but were unable to get the desirable double score executed.
Denver led for the game's final 52 minutes and 32 seconds in a wire-to-wire win. After struggling to find a connection with Manning all year, tight end Owen Daniels stepped up with two big catches for touchdowns in the first half. Manning had previously thrown one touchdown at home all year (also to Daniels).
As predicted, New England's pass-happy approach did not work so well on the road. Brady only handed off 14 times for 31 yards. For a good chunk of the game both quarterbacks had their team's longest rush, as each converted on a third-and-10 scramble. Brady actually finished as his team's leading rusher with 13 yards and a long run of 11. The crazy part is, Brady has already done that this season: he rushed for 15 yards with another 11-yard run against the Jets in Week 7. Manning infamously bypassed a running lane for a third-down conversion in last year's playoff loss to the Colts, but he looked healthier here and picked up a 12-yard gain that was key to flipping field position in the third quarter.
Even the biggest break of the day had some consequences I may have predicted on Friday for New England. Manning checked down a pass to Ronnie Hillman in the flat, but it was a lateral. All players should be taught to go after the ball in those situations just in case, but Hillman did not even bother on the laziest effort of the day. The Patriots recovered and quickly turned that mistake into a 22-yard touchdown drive, but instead of tying the game, standout kicker Stephen Gostkowski shanked the extra point. He had made a record 523 extra points in a row (including the playoffs), a streak the likes of which we will never see again, but he'll now be remembered (in part) for this big miss under the new rules. The irony is that Belichick was one of the leading voices in making the extra point a more competitive, tougher play, which of course went into effect this season. The Patriots were left chasing that missed point to the bitter end.
The Fourth Quarter
Despite the marquee value of these quarterbacks, it was actually quite fun to watch these defenses batter two legends instead of seeing receivers running wide open all day long like we see in some games in today's NFL. Von Miller played like a man possessed in the third quarter and Jamie Collins destroyed two Denver drives with a pair of second-down sacks. The Broncos were clinging onto a 17-12 lead for dear life with a quarter to play, but the offense needed to do something. Gary Kubiak's insistence on playing Hillman as much or more than C.J. Anderson continues to befuddle us all, but maybe they do save Anderson for the closing role for durability reasons. Denver had been stopped on a big third-and-1 toss in the third quarter that actually would have been better suited for Hillman's speed. This time the Broncos went with a more traditional power run and the blocking was perfect, opening up a hole for Anderson to gain 30 yards. Denver's other 26 carries only gained 58 yards, but that explosive run is why you keep feeding the ball to Anderson.
I have to give Manning credit for squeezing in a big third-and-2 conversion to Emmanuel Sanders for a 4-yard gain in the red zone. That route was similar to the "Tracy Porter pick-six" play in Super Bowl XLIV, the specifics of which Reggie Wayne decided on Sunday morning he had to tell everyone about all these years later. Manning might have been able to put this one away with a pass on third-and-13, but he just missed Jordan Norwood in the end zone by a matter of inches.
See this a lot with Manning & his receivers this season. Just off by a little. pic.twitter.com/rMBKAD5CF1
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 25, 2016
The Broncos kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 20-12 lead with 10:02 left, but needed to withstand three rally attempts from Brady and the Patriots. Denver's offense went three-and-out on its last two drives, so everything was on the defense here. Some random Saturday research of mine revealed that teams trailing by exactly 8 points in the fourth quarter in the playoffs are 2-11 since 1994. The Patriots do have one of the wins, coming back to beat San Diego in 2006 after some good fortune.
Since 1994, teams are 2-11 in playoffs when trailing by exactly 8 points in 4Q Winners: 2002 49ers (bad snap) 2006 Pats (M.McCree/Kaeding)
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 23, 2016
The First Stand
Safety Darian Stewart, who had a first-half interception, left the game with an injury in the third quarter. T.J. Ward soon joined him with his own ankle injury with 8:15 left. Backup safety Shiloh Keo had a tough penalty for a big hit on Julian Edelman. Not sure what defenders can do in these situations where small targets make the strike zone even smaller by getting lower after the catch. Keo had to tackle Edelman again later on a big third-and-10 for 19 yards, easily Edelman's biggest catch of the day. On third-and-11, Josh Bush, the other replacement safety, could have stopped Danny Amendola for a 6-yard gain at best, but failed to make the tackle. Amendola turned that into a long fourth-and-1 situation, and you cannot blame the Patriots for going for it with 6:03 left. Moving the ball on this defense had been really tough to this point. The problem was the play call. It was a little too cute, and DeMarcus Ware's quick pressure led to Brady floating the pass to Edelman behind the line for a 1-yard loss. You need to throw at or beyond the sticks there.
Despite 56 throws from Brady, Edelman only had 53 yards on 13 targets, a phenomenal effort from the defense.
The Second Stand
New England's second attempt required a 71-yard drive with 4:35 left. Brady actually targeted James White five times on this drive, but shockingly was 5-of-16 for 45 yards in the game to White. I gloated about White's receiving DVOA more than doubling Dion Lewis' this year, but this game would drag that down. However, it just shows a flaw in using a number such as general targets, as it includes passes where Brady clearly threw the ball away to avoid pressure. Brady also fell in love with the deep ball to White in getting him matched up with linebackers like Danny Trevathan. Brady threw to White 10 times in the quarter alone, but the two were unable to connect on those longer throws with the ball usually hitting the ground just in front of a diving White.
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Denver actually stopped Brady on the quarterback sneak, but the play officially never happened due to a false start on Marcus Cannon, setting up third-and-6. After an Amendola catch was ruled incomplete due to losing control, Kubiak took a shot at the worst challenge ever. He basically did the Patriots' job for them, but saved them the timeout risk. If this had been ruled a catch, it would have given the Patriots a first down. There was no way Denver would have gotten the ball since Amendola recovered any potential fumble. The delay also let the Patriots think about fourth-and-6 instead of letting Denver just ride it out. Fortunately for Denver, Amendola was deemed to never have control and it remained an incompletion.
On fourth-and-6, Denver rushed four at Brady. The pocket initially was good, but he had to fade away and lob up a mini-Hail Mary pass to Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone. Three Broncos were there and their jumps were timed well. You just can never expect a pass interference flag in that situation, especially on the road. There was nothing egregious here worthy of a penalty anyway and the Patriots turned the ball over on downs with 2:18 left. Manning was then unable to connect with Sanders on a big third-and-10, so the Patriots quickly got one more crack at it.
The Final Drive
The Patriots only needed 50 yards, and with 1:52 left, time was not a problem. The necessary two-point conversion loomed large here, but slowing down Ware was the first task. He nearly had two monster sacks, but Brady got the ball away to set up fourth-and-10. Gronkowski, who had a strange battle with hydration during the game, showed up big here, getting by Bush and Chris Harris for a 40-yard gain on a deep ball. Denver fans were probably wondering about the safety injuries and whether that position was going to burn this team in a playoff game again.
As I was arguing for in our preview, put Talib and a safety on Gronkowski and make the ball go elsewhere in the red zone. Talib did spend two downs on him, and thanks to another pressure the game came down to a big fourth down with 17 seconds left. Of course, even with a true double-team this time, Gronkowski still won the battle, catching the touchdown after doing a great job of staying in bounds. The guy is just unbelievable and you have to wonder if health is the main reason he does not go off for numbers like this (eight catches for 144 yards) every single week. He has a long injury history and he plays such a physical style that you almost have to manage his touches to get him through a full season. Edelman is a nice player in this offense, but this game just further proves that Gronkowski is really the difference-maker for the Patriots.
But there was still the matter of the two-point conversion. This was just the fifth try since 1994 in the playoffs with a team down by two points and needing the conversion for the fourth-quarter tie.
|NFL Playoff History: Two-Point Conversion Attempts Down 2 Points in Fourth Quarter|
|SF||2001||NFC-WC||at GB||15-13||12:00||Jeff Garcia pass complete to Tai Streets||L 25-15|
|PIT||2002||AFC-DIV||at TEN||28-26||10:09||Hines Ward pass complete to Plaxico Burress||L 34-31 OT|
|NE||2006||AFC-DIV||at SD||21-19||4:36||Kevin Faulk rushes up the middle||W 24-21|
|SF||2012||SB||BAL||31-29||9:57||Colin Kaepernick pass incomplete to Randy Moss [Overthrown]||L 34-31|
|NE||2015||AFC-C||at DEN||20-18||0:12||Tom Brady pass incomplete to Julian Edelman [Intercepted by Bradley Roby]||L 20-18|
Given the time remaining and weight of the game, calling this the most crucial two-point conversion attempt in NFL history would not be hyperbole. New England also could say it had the previous highest-leverage try in NFL history with the conversion in San Diego at the 4:36 mark in the aforementioned 2006 game.
Easy to say lob it high for Gronk, but pressure forces really fast decisions, and often suboptimal ones. pic.twitter.com/g1fmc9olXT
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 25, 2016
It is easy to say Brady should have lobbed one up for Gronkowski in the back of the end zone, but pressure does crazy things to quarterbacks, even those headed for Canton. Earlier in the quarter, phantom pressure had Brady pulling the ball up like he had just suffered a cramp while swimming in a lake. Here, he tried to force one to Edelman, but it was tipped and intercepted by Bradley Roby, who inexplicably fumbled the ball on the return after Amendola stripped him. We almost had a repeat of Marlon McCree in that 2006 San Diego game, though the ball was dead on the two-point try after the Patriots recovered it on the ground.
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That kind of shaky ending is why even with 12 seconds you could not write "game over" with the onside kick to come. The kick was very short and the Broncos did the right thing to get on it immediately to finally seal this one and punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Even if Super Bowl 50 looks like a repeat of Super Bowl XLVIII for this Denver team, that does not take away from this moment. Rocky Balboa did not beat Apollo Creed in the first Rocky (that movie is almost 40 years old, so nobody gets to complain about spoilers), but the story was still about resiliency and earning respect. Denver had to ponder its playoff fate in Week 16, and has fought back to earn a second trip to the Super Bowl in three years. While you would prefer not to have the conference championship as the highlight of your season with a game to go, it really was a fantastic win in an instant classic.
After the game ended, Manning shared extra-long moments at midfield with Brady and Belichick, known for some brevity in those situations, but not this time. You could sense they knew this was the final chapter in an incredible rivalry, and it ends with great respect for how they have pushed each other. We may not see another rivalry like it in our lifetimes. It was one with so many important games where home-field advantage and trips to the Super Bowl were on the line. None of the 17 games ever had that classic shootout with both quarterbacks playing at their best, but that was OK. What this rivalry showed from the first game through the last was just how important it is to have a well-rounded team, even if you have the pinnacle of quarterback play on your side. The better defensive team usually won. The home team usually won. On Sunday, Denver had both angles, and Manning is going to his fourth Super Bowl with the dream ending still in play.
His story has a chapter left to be written, but Manning can close the book on the Brady section in satisfying fashion.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 72
Game-winning drives: 91 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 161/266 (60.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.