The NFL wants it this way, of course, thinking it has a league of extraordinary equilibrium. When a season offers no sensible rhythm or pattern and feeds a perception that any team can win or lose on any scheduled Sunday, Monday or Thursday — and did I hear Roger Goodell is thinking Fridays, too? — we’re expected to be transfixed in suspense. But sophisticated pro football watchers do want to know, after a dozen weeks, some definition of the league’s elite.
And at this stage, I’m not entirely certain any team belongs.
You could say the Patriots-Broncos game was a classic, I guess. On a frigid night in a field somewhere between Boston and Rhode Island, with wind chills dropping below 10 degrees, the conditions resembled what the first outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl might bring Feb. 2 in New Jersey. A scrum that ended past midnight, with 1:56 left in overtime, began with the Patriots fumbling the ball away three times in the first quarter, errors cashed in for an eventual 24-0 lead by a Denver team seemingly cementing itself as that one elite AFC jewel. Never had Peyton Manning blown a lead of 22 points or more in an NFL game, defending such advantages 50 times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs. With Knowshon Moreno controlling the ground game, Von Miller back in attack mode on defense and Patriots fans booing their boys, the Broncos finally were elevating themselves high above all the mucky mediocrity.
Until they weren’t.
It’s not that Tom Brady wasn’t damned impressive in overcoming the whopping deficit. He was brilliant in the New England cold and wind, navigating the comeback with precise passes to receivers near and far, none bigger than slippery, little Julian Edelman. It’s just that the Broncos, who came to Foxborough at a tight 9-1 after a thumping of previously unbeaten Kansas City, plummeted wickedly in the second half after appearing ready to place a vice grip on a season. Next thing you knew, a New England punt was bouncing on the hard turf and deflecting off Denver’s Tony Carter, which created a live ball recovered by the Patriots’ Nate Ebner at the Broncos’ 13-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski, the most automatic of kickers these days, chip-shotted a 31-yard field goal that lifted the Patriots — an injury-and-scandal-ravaged team glued together this year only via Brady’s will and coach Bill Belichick’s savvy — to a 34-31 victory.
Special teams do not give away big leads like this.
“I was running to get away from the ball and it took a bounce right into me,” Carter said, per the Associated Press.
Actually, the bigger culprit was Wes Welker, the former Patriot, who probably shouldn’t have been playing Sunday after suffering a concussion seven nights earlier. Forced into punt-return duty after the continuing fumble problems of Trindon Holliday, Welker hadn’t received much work in practice in that area. So when the punt came his way — as Patriots fans derisively chanted “Wel-ker! Wel-ker!” … just as Red Sox fans would taunt Alex Rodriguez at Fenway Park — he didn’t signal his intentions quickly enough as the ball knuckled through the wind. Welker finally cried, “Peter! Peter!” — which meant all teammates had to clear out of the way. Carter tried, but the ball nicked off his body. Suddenly, a 10-1 record and a clear road to the AFC’s top playoff seeding now was a 9-2 grind, with a rematch against the Chiefs this Sunday in Kansas City.
“It was really a tale of two halves,” said Jack Del Rio, Denver’s interim head coach. “We forced turnovers and jumped on them early. They forced turnovers and jumped on us at the end. We just had a fluke play at the end.”
“Hated the way that ended, not getting a chance to get our hands on the ball,” Manning said. “We helped them with some short fields. It’s hard to do that to our defense.”
While it’s hard to criticize Manning after the best 10 weeks ever put together by an NFL quarterback, he clearly was outplayed by Brady. He struggled to connect with his receivers downfield, in part because Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib were playing sensational cover defense on Demaryius Thomas. It made more sense to keep pounding the ball with Moreno, who gained a career-high 224 yards and produced much more with his 37 carries than Manning did with his 36 passes (19 completions, 150 yards, two touchdowns, one interception). Though the nuances of this game expanded far beyond Brady vs. Manning XIV, the fact is Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
And the fact is, Brady now owns a 10-4 career record against Manning, who is 2-10 in Foxborough.
While Manning remains the frontrunner for the league MVP award, which would be his fifth, Brady picked up some points. ESPN’s Ron Jaworski uncovered a stat last week that seemed to hint of Brady’s demise: Since 2010, on passes over 20 yards in the air, he ranks 25th among quarterbacks with only a 30.3 completion percentage. This season, the number had sunk to 22.9 percent. But not since Randy Moss left town has Brady been about the long pass. He is a leader, a surgeon, a champion. And now, somehow, through all the injuries and the newcomers and the bad officiating call in Charlotte and the thought of Aaron Hernandez being in a jail cell 12 miles away, the Patriots are 8-3.
“That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to put a lot of the stuff aside,” Brady said. “You’ve got to forget about what happened in the first half because it was a terrible half of football. I don’t even know what you coach at that point, you know? So we came in and we talked about some of the things they were doing and what we needed to do. We found a way to get back in it.”
Said Edelman, all 5 feet 10 of him: “It was good to show the mental toughness of this team.”
The Patriots had more mental toughness than the Broncos. That was disappointing. Next Monday night, Seattle hosts the Saints in a similar NFC supremacy showdown. If the 10-1 Seahawks don’t win and affirm their place in the elite, that will be disappointing.
Sometimes, it’s the hot team in late November and December that wins the Super Bowl. Can you say Carolina?