All season long, there has been a general assumption that the Patriots could withstand whatever injury or free agency defection on offense, because of Tom Brady.
But while things are far from efficient in the passing game, the Patriots are fortunate have the ultimate deodorant at quarterback, so they’re getting away with things for now.
Brady doesn’t have enough targets to beat people downfield, but he’s been able to either win or put his team in position to win with an odd lot of tight ends and backs and erstwhile slot guys, some combination of which happen to show up on alternate weeks.
That was the case Sunday night, in their 34-31 overtime comeback win over the Broncos. They won on Stephen Gostkowski’s 31-yard field goal in overtime, capping a thrilling back-and-forth.
But there were opportunities for it to end in regulation, but for the lack of established threats for the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Julian Edelman led the way with nine catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, but he’s well down their projected list of targets.
Brady spread the ball among six different receivers, averaging a pedestrian 6.9 yards per attempt. It worked, which makes it sort of hard to complain about. But since it’s Brady, and the clock is ticking on his prime years, you can’t help but view this year as a bit of a wasted opportunity.
Some combination of pride and money kept them from keeping Wes Welker, and they never adequately replaced the rest of the production. When they throw, they’re mostly throwing short, safe passes.
Brady kept in touch with several of his former wideouts this offseason, and there’s clearly a reason for that. He lacks guys he trusts to make plays more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.
They couldn’t throw it on a Panthers secondary which was begging for it, and they couldn’t throw it on the Broncos until the second half, when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was out with a shoulder injury, and the Broncos were down several safeties.
Here are five more things we learned on Sunday Night Football:
1. There have been questions about Peyton Manning’s arm strength and physical condition, especially on cold and windy nights.
But the touchdown pass he threw to Jacob Tamme in the second quarter was the kind most 23-year-old can’t make when the weather is perfect.
Of course, he was averaging about 4.0 yards per attempt otherwise, so there might be something to the persistent talk about Manning freezing up when the temperature dips.
He made some throws in the fourth quarter to get the game to overtime, but there wasn’t a body of work in the elements to change an established narrative.
2. Speaking of the weather, it almost makes you wonder if the Broncos aren’t better off going into the playoffs as a wild card.
At least then, they’d have a chance at perhaps going to Indianapolis to play indoors.
Otherwise, if they’re playing at home or in New England or Cincinnati or Kansas City or wherever, they’re going to have to answer the question about the weather sooner or later.
3. The Broncos keep hoping for a young back to be able to spell veteran Knowshon Moreno.
But everyone they keep giving chances to keeps giving those chances away.
Whether it was Ronnie Hillman early in the year or Montee Ball in the third quarter, it’s hard for them to keep giving chances to others, because they can’t trust them.
Moreno ran well enough (37 carries for 224 yards) between gimping off the field to justify the continued work.
But you have to wonder how long he and they can maintain it.
4. The Patriots continue to come up with role players who can fill in.
Not many defenses can lose a Vince Wilfork or a Jerod Mayo and keep going, and the Patriots are clearly susceptible to the run.
But they got a boost in the second half when Dane Fletcher came on.
He’s the kind of special teamer/niche player they’ve found so often, and continue to plug in and keep going.
5. Perhaps the most frightening Broncos player is return man Trindon Holliday.
Sure, he can break one at any moment.
But he struggled to catch the ball cleanly Sunday night, doing nothing to kill his reputation as a guy who can kills you with his fumbles too.
It’s the kind of little thing that’s not a problem, right up until the moment it is.
The fact they replaced him with Welker late shows that they know it too. Of course, Welker’s inexperience with the punt team might have contributed to the fatal turnover in overtime, so the Broncos were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.