If it had just been Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, it might have been a fair – and evenly matched – contest.
Brady-Manning XIII might have gone down as another classic showdown of the future Hall of Fame gunslingers.
But Brady’s New England Patriots this year have something Manning’s Denver Broncos do not – and something Brady himself has never had in 12 previous seasons with the Pats.
That is, a dominant rushing attack to go along with one of the slickest passing attacks in the NFL.
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots steamrolled an AFC contender thanks to a dual-faceted offensive explosion, paced as much by running as by Brady’s masterful throwing.
On Sunday afternoon the Patriots mashed the Broncos, 31-21. New England led 31-7 before Manning showed again why he’s Canton-bound, leading a valiant fourth-quarter comeback with pinpoint passing that was ultimately thwarted by late gaffes.
But that Patriot offence. If the Brady and co. can keep this up – running to set up the pass, and vice versa – then defensive coordinators won’t know whether to shout, shave or wind their watches.
Wide receiver Wes Welker, who caught 13 passes for 104 yards and a score, said his New England offence now has “so many options,” it gives defences to much to think about.
Since falling to 1-2 on the season two weeks ago at Baltimore, the Pats offence has been almost unstoppable. They’ve racked up 68 first downs, 1,024 total yards and scored 83 points since then. And most of that has come in the last six quarters.
When one of New England’s running-back trio of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden or Danny Woodhead isn’t ripping off another big-gainer or drive-extending first down, Brady is doing his usual carve job on the secondary – throwing to Welker, or tight end Rob Gronkowski, or wideout Brandon Lloyd, or others.
And this is all going down with one of Brady’s two star tight ends, Aaron Hernandez, still out with a foot injury.
Brady as much said teams are still defending the Patriots most of the time to pass.
“We’re getting a lot of nickel defence,” he said. “So when they put little guys out there, we’ve got to take advantage of it. And I think we’re playing definitely a more physical style, and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. And we’ve got to keep doing it.”
Ridley had 151 yards on 28 carries, while Bolden added 54 yards and Woodhead 47.
If there was one play this year that has typified the new bi-killer Patriots attack, it was in the third quarter, when New England led Denver 24-7. On 3rd and 17, Brady handed off to Woodhead.
“You know what?” Brady said, “When the call came in, (offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) said, ‘I think we can get this.’ And (the Broncos) were in a pretty light personnel grouping. I handed off to Woody and he found a crease.”
Woodhead, a tough-running smurf, picked up 18 yards and a first down. Several plays later, Ridley smashed into the end zone to give the Pats a 31-7 lead.
It’s not as though the Broncos were wrong to key in on Brady and the passing attack. Who wouldn’t?
As he’s been doing for most of his career, Brady ripped up the Ravens secondary two weeks ago, embarrassed the Buffalo Bills’ secondary last week (for 168 yards and three TDs in the second half alone), and was 23-of-31 for 193 yards against Denver.
Last year, the Patriots offence was never more pass-reliant. It hurt them in the Super Bowl against a New York Giants defence that paid little heed to the run.
This must be the reason New England head coach Bill Belichick is seeking more balance in his offensive attack.
It’s something that Manning probably wishes he had. While Denver’s Willis McGahee is a good NFL running back, he’s about the only option Denver has in the run game. And when he’s contained, as he was Sunday in gaining just 51 yards on 14 carries, Denver’s hopes rest entirely on Manning’s arm.
You can’t begrudge Brady for describing the new Patriots attack as “fun.”
“We’re running the ball against some very advantageous looks, and we’re throwing the ball against some advantageous looks,” Brady said. “And I think the important part is to be able to do both.
“You can’t just throw it all day, you can’t just run it all day. You’ve got to be able to do both.”
The Patriots can do both now. And pretty damn well.
NFL defensive coordinators are gulping.