PHYSICALITY WON THE BATTLE
The Denver Broncos 30-24 overtime win on Sunday Night Football was quintessential Mile High Magic.
Bill Belichick's squad left Denver with their first loss of the season — handed to them by a backup quarterback and a relentless defense.
It was cold in Denver that night. Snow was falling. Field conditions were terrible. It was a game where physicality would be the determining factor.
“We preached at halftime that physical was still going to win the football game, and ultimately it did," head coach Gary Kubiak said post-game.
The Broncos, I would argue, endured the bigger loss, playing without two Pro Bowlers, one of whom was the starting quarterback. Overcoming the loss of Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions is quite an impressive feat.
There were a variety of reasons the Broncos came out on top. But physicality was one of them. The offensive line bullied the Patriots front seven, paving the way for the Broncos season-high 179 yards rushing.
On a night you can believe Belichick wanted to establish the run, the Broncos defense held the Patriots to just 39 yards rushing as a team (2.9 YPC). Physicality won the day.
The Broncos sacked Tom Brady three times but took him to the ground relentlessly. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr. and Bradley Roby executed defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' game-plan well, as Patriots WR Brandon LaFell opined after the game.
“Offensively, I just think we played into their hands; we started throwing the ball a lot and just played into their hands, letting them put pressure on [Patriots QB Tom Brady] whenever they wanted," LaFell said. "We let Talib and their defense just sit back and sit in a zone. We weren’t making plays."
The Broncos defense weren't perfect — to be sure. But in the second half, they gave Osweiler and company the opportunity to storm back and send the game to overtime. Hats off to them.
BROCK OSWEILER EMERGES IN THE CLUTCH
If you've been following my writing here on Mile High Huddle, or have listened to my insights via our podcast, In The Huddle, you've heard me talk about what I perceive are the biggest differences between Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.
Manning, even though he played inconsistently (to be kind) all season, did what truly great veteran QBs do — come through in the clutch. Whether it was a clock-consuming drive to protect a lead, or a come-from-behind score to tie or win, Manning produced when the Broncos needed him most this season.
The five-time MVP has that wisdom and determination that comes from having lived through the live bullets countless times — sometimes resulting in failure, some in success. Manning has that in-game, practical, clutch experience — in spades.
That experience is hard-earned. Early on in the season, when Manning was struggling, my concern with inserting Osweiler was due to his experience — or lack thereof. On a physical level, there's no way Manning can compete with what Osweiler brings to the table now. Arm strength, athleticism, physical resilience — Osweiler possesses these attributes and tools in greater measure than his 39-year-old counterpart.
But could Osweiler be counted on to come through in the clutch, with all the chips down — when it mattered most? Because of that uncertainty, I felt the Broncos were making the right decision in sticking with Manning, even though he was turning the ball over like a floundering rookie.
After a hard-fought road win in Chicago, Brock Osweiler followed it up with one of the most impressive quarterback performances the NFL has seen this year. On the surface, Osweiler did not light it up. He finished 23-of-42 for 270 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
But down 21-7 to start the fourth quarter, Osweiler showed true grit and a level of poise unseen from a young signal-caller starting just his second game. When he took command of the huddle with 2:31 left in the fourth quarter, down 21-17, he was on the razor's edge. No one would have faulted him had he and the Bronco offense come up short.
The narrative, however, would turn out much differently. In just five plays, Osweiler drove the Broncos 83 yards for the go-ahead score. He went 3-of-4 passing, and the passes he completed were masterful throws that only the big boys of the NFL can match. His back-shoulder touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell to cap off the drive was case-in-point.
It was the throw of a prepared and poised player. In overtime, after the Broncos defense forced a three-and-out from the Patriots, Osweiler made a decision at the line of scrimmage that would result in the game-winning touchdown run by C.J. Anderson.
“Brock changed it, I said, ‘Man, this has a chance’," Anderson said post-game. "And as I got a toss and I just saw [T] Ryan [Harris] deep for me, and I thought, if he can get to the hole, I better be able to get to the hole. You just got to get it to the big boys up front, they pretty much create the play and got me a chance to get on the safeties and make them miss, and the next thing you know is history.”
History, indeed. Kubiak's take on how Osweiler played in the pressure cooker sums up the emerging gunslinger's night.
“Yeah, I mean he's very composed. He handles himself very well. Even the turnover tonight didn't bother him," Kubiak said. "He just keeps going. He has great feedback to me for a young player. He talks very well to me—'No, I don't like that. Give me this.' In the two minute drive when we took the lead, basically he had two opportunities to make big plays when they went to a certain coverage, and he made them both. You've got to give him credit. He was patient in there at the end as far as getting us in the right running plays—just very composed to get that done for us.”
The Broncos face a very difficult decision if/when Manning returns to health this season. But in the National Football league, that's a problem most teams would kill to have.
14 MILLION DOLLARS...
Demaryius Thomas let his team down in a big way Sunday night. Yes, the conditions were horrible for the aerial game, but Thomas was targeted 13 times by Osweiler and only hauled in one pass.
Granted, that one pass was a difficult jump ball on the Broncos 83-yard go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter, but the complexion of that game could have looked very different had Thomas executed and done his job throughout.
Emmanuel Sanders played in the same conditions. But he hauled in six of his nine targets and most of his receptions came in tight coverage in big moments.
Listen, every professional athlete is going to have a bad day at the office from time to time. I recognize that. But when you're paying a guy $14 million per year, a guy who held out of all offseason training activities, you're paying for him to come through in big games.
Thomas' catch on the Broncos last drive of regulation helped save what would have been a disastrous outing. But he's got to rise to the occasion in a situation where his young, inexperienced QB, and his team, needs him most.
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Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.