The New England Patriots endured injury after injury this season, so it’s only fitting that it all ended when Aqib Talib went down minutes into the second quarter on Sunday.
It was the second straight year that the Patriots cornerback went down in an AFC Championship Game loss. The Patriots couldn’t beat the Baltimore Ravens without Talib last year, and they couldn’t do it against the Denver Broncos this season. The Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes were dashed by quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
There’s no doubt the Patriots couldn’t have won 13 games this season without their star cornerback, but Talib has a way of getting injured at the most inopportune times. Without Talib in the game, Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas went off for seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots’ depth at cornerback was a strength all year, but they couldn’t force a mistake out of Manning. The secondary was not the same without Talib. Cornerback Logan Ryan finally played like a rookie, and Alfonzo Dennard couldn’t fill Talib’s shoes as the team’s No. 1 cornerback.
The Patriots’ secondary failed to generate any big plays as well. New England has relied on turnovers all season and got none.
Talib’s injury hurt the Patriots the most, but it wasn’t the only reason New England lost. Check out what went wrong for the Patriots below.
1. LeGarrette Blount couldn’t get rolling.
The Patriots depended on running back LeGarrette Blount in their Week 17 win over the Buffalo Bills and in their divisional-round playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts. But Blount ran five times for just 6 yards in the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots tried to get the running game going early, but once they fell behind, they didn’t have time to start rolling. It didn’t help that the Broncos held the ball for so long on each drive, giving their defense plenty of time to rest.
2. The Patriots failed to pressure Peyton Manning.
The Patriots had zero sacks and zero quarterback hits. They couldn’t disrupt Manning, giving him plenty of time to make all 43 of his throws. Defensive end Chandler Jones got near Manning in the first quarter, but a team can’t win without double-digit pressures.
Rushing the passer was always a weakness for the Patriots this season. It reared its ugly head again at the worst possible time. Of course, without Talib in the game, Broncos receivers were quickly getting open.
3. Tom Brady couldn’t rely on his receivers.
One of the Patriots’ advantages going into the game was a banged-up Broncos secondary. That didn’t matter, since Tom Brady still had no one to rely on. He targeted wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Shane Vereen on more than half of his 38 passing attempts.
Receiver Danny Amendola was targeted just once, and he dropped the football. Cornerback Champ Bailey was blanketing Amendola, but that’s no excuse to fail to get open more often.
Receiver Austin Collie almost became a hero, catching four passes on six targets for 57 yards, but it wasn’t enough. The rookie receivers never fully emerged, which left Brady with just Edelman and Vereen — both of whom played admirably.
There were two major flaws in the Patriots’ game plan. The first came at the end of the third quarter, when the Patriots elected to go for it on fourth-and-3 rather than attempt a 47-yard field goal that would have cut the Broncos’ lead to 20-6. That would have made a big difference when the Patriots started mounting a comeback in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots also should have had more urgency on the fourth-quarter scoring drive that cut the Broncos’ lead to 26-16. New England was going all out for a two-point conversion and an onside kick. They got neither, and that effectively ended the game. Follow @DougKyedNESN