Things to consider while seeing how many Kubler-Ross levels we can get through today:
— Since our relationship is built on trust, I’ll level with you: I went into this game with a sense of doom. That once again this was going to be a Dante-like journey into the demon world known as Mile High. The first inkling we were about to pass through the circles of the inferno was the Patriots taking the ball to start the game, which they never do. Followed by Ed Hochuli wearing long sleeves. The first drive stalling when Julian Edelman got held in front of the official but no call. The first Denver drive kept alive on a third-and-10 conversion where Malcolm Butler was playing Emmanuel Sanders from somewhere outside of Aspen. By the time Stephen Gostkowski missed that extra point, it wasn’t hard to see that the ninth circle of hell awaited us, and it would be a 2-point conversion try at the end with the game on the line. Only it was worse than anything Dante dreamed up. Being frozen in a lake for eternity with Judas and the other betrayers would be a picnic compared to watching Peyton Manning going to the Super Bowl at our expense again.
— This isn’t just stupid “curse” talk, either. Bizarre things happen every time the Patriots play in Denver. Most of their own doing, but bizarre nevertheless. Football seasons always come down to just a few plays that have a profound Butterfly Effect on who wins the title in the end. As it turns out, the whole 2015 season unraveled when Chris Harper dropped that punt back in November. That swung the game that decided home field that determined the season. As some great men once said, we lost a lot of good men at Harper’s Muff.
— Seriously, though, how else do you explain Rob Gronkowski having to go to the sideline in the middle of a crucial drive to get hosed down by the water boy, then laying on his belly sucking oxygen while they ran a rolling pin over his legs? Home field is everything when you’re facing Denver in the playoffs. The Patriots had opportunities to be in Foxboro with a fully-hydrated, air-breathing, un-leg-rolled Gronk. But they blew it under an avalanche of muffs, onside kicks, overtime kickoffs and futile, run-heavy game plans.
— The shorthand I’m hearing from a lot of people is, “Tom Brady sucked. He cost them the game.” Believe me, I admit that interception he threw to Von Miller was at least sixth- or seventh-circle of hell material. I would rather have seen Brady help El Chapo escape or spend all of December spoiling “The Force Awakens” on live TV than throw that atrociously Manzellian pick on his own 20. And yes, I have to acknowledge that Manning played a mistake-free game and he’s 3-1 against the Patriots in championship games. But to rip Brady without recognizing how historically helpless his offensive line was is just trolling of the worst kind.
— Simply put, both tackles were atrocious. Maybe Sebastian Vollmer is still hurt and cannot move laterally. Maybe Marcus Cannon was gutting it out with some ailment we don’t know about. But for much of the game you could have put helmets and pads on two CPR dummies and put them at either end of the line and you would have gotten the same amount of protection. There was one third-down play in particular in the second quarter when Miller and Marcus Ware speed-rushed both tackles to the outside and cut Brady down from both sides like a set of hedge clippers. Cameron Fleming came in for extra help on one play and never even made contact with Miller. The tackles were mall cops working a Black Friday doorbuster sale, and it was, “Buy one Brady sack, get three free.”
— Honestly, that’s not making excuses. It’s fact. The protection was virtually non-existent, and there’s not another quarterback in the game who could have put together scoring drives in the face of those prison breaks on every single series. He did not play well. But if you saw where he had the chance to, I’d appreciate it if you’d point it out to me.
— To the friends and family who called and want me to acknowledge Manning played better than Brady, fine. I admit he did. Now the larger issue is the question of why that brings you joy. You and I lived through the Larry Bird era. Did it fill your heart with gladness when he got outplayed by Magic Johnson or lost to the Pistons? Some friends of mine and I have vastly different approaches to our Boston sports fandoms.
— I suppose I need to address Bill Belichick‘s decision to keep playing for the touchdown in the fourth quarter instead of taking the field goal. And if you want to be Captain Hindsight you can point out that the way the game played out, if they’d taken the three points they probably would have won. But in the moment, I was good with playing for the tie. I never could have imagined the way the game was going that Denver’s play-calling would go Conservative Level: Ted Cruz, they’d only gain three yards in the last 10 minutes and the Pats would get three trips to the red zone. At the time I felt you take your shots there. And I have a hard time believing anyone was screaming at their TVs for the field goals there. On the other hand, by then my soul had left my body and was heading toward the light, so I wasn’t really thinking rationally.
— This game was so agonizing I couldn’t even watch the halftime coverage. Which is to say, I tuned out right after hearing Bill Cowher say, “Football is the ultimate chess match,” apparently unaware of a thing called “chess.” Anyway, after flipping around for a few minutes I realized that the Patriots were the only disaster on TV yesterday worse than “John Carter.”
— I still don’t know what the defensive game plan was on that first drive. It’s like they assumed Denver would not let Manning lose them the game and loaded up against the run. Dont’a Hightower was in for Chandler Jones at Will linebacker. There was no pass rush to speak of. They allowed Denver to sit under soft zones and pick up first downs. And the touchdown to Owen Daniels was a just a complete breakdown in coverage. I don’t know if the staff was playing Candy Crush on those Microsoft tablets or whatever, but things got significantly better once they went down.
— When the Patriots win, I say the better team won. When they lose, I say the better team won. I’m a big believer in the philosophy that you play the game to determine who the better team is. No excuses. Losers whine about doing their best, winners go home and boink the prom queen and all that. But just for laughs, imagine for a second what the world would be like today if the game was at Gillette, the Broncos‘ tablets went out in the middle of the game and they lost by two. Civil War II.
— In fact, I’d love to pin this one on someone other than the Patriots themselves. But they actually benefited from one of those calls from The Book of Rules Known Only by Ed Hochuli. I still don’t know what the Denver punt coverage unit did out of bounds to justify a 15-yard penalty, just that it helped. And while Gronk was insisting he got grabbed in the end zone by Aqib Talib, I couldn’t see it. The officials weren’t a factor.
— I can’t be too harsh on the defense, which for the most part did its job. Aside from that opening drive, the defense suffered from Brady handing the ball away on the end zone’s welcome mat and otherwise shut Denver down. The problem is the Pats forced one turnover in two playoff games, gave the weakest armed quarterback in football time to go into a full windup on every pitch, and let a slow, lumbering tight end beat a freakishly athletic Jamie Collins for two touchdowns. The Patriots defense is good. But it’s not championship-caliber.
— And if teams ever start focusing on taking away Collins’ A-gap blitz, they might never produce a negative play again.
— The Phil Simms Stupid Rhetorical Device of the Week: “You think they’re not concerned about Rob Gronkowski? Well, watch this!” No, Phil. No one in the world thinks that. After all these years, would it kill him to come up with just one other way to make a point? I swear, if Simms was a state trooper, he’d walk up to the scene of a horrific car crash and say, “You think driving drunk isn’t dangerous? Well, take look at that blood and guts!”
— I’m proud to live in a country so advanced that Jay Feely can make a living analyzing kickers. Though, beyond talking about plant feet and follow-throughs, I can’t imagine how much more work goes into it. He did get into some talk about Gostkowski’s hips not being square. At least I think he did. I might have just had Huey Lewis in my head. Anyway, he might have the best job in the world.
— It’s way too early to get into looking ahead at next year. But I have to think we can feel good about the secondary for the forseeable future. Butler might have set a record this year for insanely athletic catches by opposing receivers, but seeing him go stride for stride with Sanders to break up a go route, hammer the ball out of Demaryius Thomas’ hands and come up to make stops in run force has to tell you his present and future are bright.
— Guys I have serious questions about, though, are Cannon, whom you simply cannot trust going forward, Brandon LaFell and Bryan Stork, both of whom regressed something awful after having breakout seasons last year. For all Brady looks to LaFell now the team should have charged him for his airfare and game ticket. And Stork simply never recovered from his concussion. But unfortunately we’ve got all winter, spring and summer to talk about that.
— This Week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “I would like to have seen Montana.” — Capt. Borodin, “The Hunt for Red October”
— Brady is neither infallible nor above criticism. But if you weren’t praising him when he won his third Super Bowl MVP, you have a moral obligation to sit this one out.
— At times like this I envy people who think negatively all the time. Seriously. Watching a game like that with stakes so high and where I’m so emotionally invested, I don’t have a lick of fun. It’s torture. And I think it must be liberating to be one of those Debbie Downers who, after a loss like this, gets to play mayor of I Told You So City. Or to be one of those gray, timid souls who simply don’t care and spent the day reading, going to plays or having normal conversations with other human beings about real stuff. Sometimes I wish I could be like them. It would make life so much easier. I just have to remind myself the great moments make it all worth it.
— After a year like this team has been through, with all the negativity, attacks, witch hunts, unfair punishments and bogus news reports, to have it end on a failed conversion try so close to another Super Bowl is excruciating. And the thought of how giddy they all must be at NFL headquarters and across the football/media landscape to have America’s Sweetheart going instead of Brady is unbearable.
— On the other hand, it was a remarkable year to be a Patriots fan. All the hatred galvanized this fan base, drew it together and made following this team a participation sport. Pats fans have been a part of this struggle, and it will continue, without question.
— Thanks for reading these columns all season. They’ve been my favorite thing to write since I first started posting them on the Patriots Planet message board, and I’m honored (“Your kids are honored! Your families are honored!!!”) that you guys allow me to do them for a living now. I appreciate you reading Thorngraphy, so please keep it up. And keep Defending the Wall. I promise I will.
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