Call it some kind of weird, backwards karma. Rahim Moore was the apparent goat the last time the Broncos played in a freezer, at home in the playoffs last season, even though Tony Carter was at least as responsible for the catastrophic play.
Almost a year later, Carter was the apparent goat in another blisteringly cold game, even though Wes Welker was probably more responsible for the catastrophic play.
“I’ve got to get to him earlier and tell him and get those guys out of the way if I’m not going to make the catch,” Welker acknowledged, referring to the Marx Bros. routine that handed the game to the New England Patriots. “I was a little bit in between and you can’t be that way.”
Welker was back there to receive the final punt in overtime at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the Patriots play, because Trindon Holliday, the Broncos’ usual punt returner, had already muffed one at the end of the first half. That became the first of the Broncos’ four turnovers, but only five seconds remained before intermission, so it didn’t seem to matter.
After all, the Broncos had turned three New England turnovers into scores and led 24-0 at halftime. As if satisfying a cosmic need for symmetry, the Patriots did the same to the Broncos after halftime, catching up and taking the lead with 31 consecutive points, then giving up a late touchdown to set up overtime.
With a little more than three minutes remaining in the extra period, the Broncos forced the Patriots to punt for the sixth time in the game and the second in overtime. Because of the wind, Welker decided at the last minute not to risk trying to catch the ball. He tried to wave his teammates off, but it was too late for Carter to find the ball in the air. As the backup defensive back tried to flee the scene, the ball landed right next to him and bounced off his leg. The Patriots recovered at the Broncos’ 13-yard line. Two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal in a 34-31 victory.
“It’s just one of those freakish things that happens in football,” Carter said. “The ball took a bad bounce and obviously, you know, we were all trying to get out of the way. It just so happened to hit me and they recovered and it set them up for a field goal, so it was a big play in the game and just one of those things you wish you could take back.”
The ball gets hard and slick in frigid conditions. Both teams had trouble holding on. The Broncos fumbled five times, losing three. The Patriots fumbled six times, also losing three. All New England’s giveaways came in the first half. Except for the Holliday muff, all of Denver’s — two more lost fumbles and a Peyton Manning interception deep in his own territory — came after intermission.
“Really good first half for us, really good second half for them, and back and forth in the overtime,” said Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio, offering the CliffsNotes. “I thought we had a shot, really felt confident we were going to pull it out. They ended up making a play there at the end and getting a field goal up and won the game, so it was really a tale of two halves for us.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick told a similar story with a different ending:
“I thought we were moving the ball pretty well in the first half, but we turned it over. We couldn’t finish the drives. And they ended up not only with the ball, but one time they ended up with a touchdown. You can’t move the ball when you’re losing it. We’ve got to hang on to it. So, once we started doing that and converting a few third downs, we had some plays in the red area.”
This makes the Broncos 0-for-2 in spectacularly cold games during the Peyton Manning Era. The veteran quarterback has been sub-par in both.
Well, you might say, that’s only natural. It’s harder to play quarterback in conditions more commonly found on Jupiter. Just one problem with this narrative: They didn’t affect Manning’s counterpart nearly as much in either case. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco had a passer rating of 116.2 in that playoff game last season; Manning’s was 88.3.
Sunday, Tom Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 107.4. Manning threw for 150 yards, by far his lowest total of the season, two touchdowns, that interception, and a rating of 70.4, also his lowest of the season.
Manning has long had a reputation for struggling in adverse weather conditions, in part because he was stereotyped as an “indoor” quarterback during the 14 seasons he played all his home games inside a dome in Indianapolis. I didn’t cover him back then, so I don’t really know if that reputation was justified.
I do know the Ravens were convinced Manning couldn’t throw the ball down the field in the frigid playoff game last January because former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo told us so on the radio not long ago. At the time, Manning explained that the Ravens’ two-deep zone defense forced him to throw shorter routes to his backs and tight ends, even though the stat sheet showed he threw to his wideouts more often than to his backs and tight ends combined.
Sunday, his explanation for the first pedestrian stat line of his season was that the running game was going so well. Certainly, that was true. Knowshon Moreno carried 37 times for 224 yards, the third-highest total in Broncos history (behind Mike Anderson, who had 251 at New Orleans in 2000, and Clinton Portis, who posted 228 against Arizona in 2002).
When Manning was asked Sunday night about the effect of the conditions on his passing, this was his reply:
“Like I said, our running game was working, so that’s what we were going with. When you’re running the ball well, that’s a good thing for the offense. Just, when you turn it over and give them two short fields, that’s disappointing. That’s not good execution. So that’s kind of the way that worked out.”
It’s not altogether clear which short fields he was talking about because the Broncos gave the Patriots two in the second half — on a Montee Ball fumble and the Manning interception — and a third at the end of overtime. What he didn’t mention were the five Broncos possessions after intermission that ended in punts. There must have been a few moments in there where a nicely-thrown pass could have kept a drive alive, no matter how well the running game was working.
Manning won’t go there. He just frowns and deflects questions about the conditions. Everybody else acknowledged the effects, particularly that of the wind, which caused Belichick to give the Broncos the ball to begin overtime so that the Patriots might have the wind at their backs.
“It was a strong wind,” Belichick explained. “I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. So, we were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game.”
Manning’s performance in these cold-weather games increases speculation that in the two years since he underwent spinal fusion surgery, the nerve regeneration in his arm and hand is adequate for routine conditions but still inadequate for extremely cold weather. This may or may not be true, but the speculation will continue until he dominates a cold-weather game the way he has dominated so many warm-weather games over the past two seasons.
For all the drama of Sunday night’s clash — Brady is now 10-4 against Manning all time, for those keeping score, which is pretty much everybody — it didn’t change the Broncos’ landscape much at all. Obligingly, the Chiefs also lost, to San Diego, so the Broncos remain in a nominal tie with their AFC West rivals going into their rematch this Sunday in Kansas City. They are still one game better than New England — 9-2 versus 8-3 — and this loss will come into play in postseason seeding only if they end up with the same record.
It is true, of course, as Manning pointed out, that even after all the mistakes by both teams, if the Broncos don’t screw up that final Patriots punt, they have the ball with about three minutes left and an opportunity to win the game or, at least, prevent Brady from doing so by running out the clock.
“Still felt like we had a chance, getting the ball there at the very end,” Manning said. “I thought we were going to have the ball last and we were going to score and win the game or I guess it could have ended in a tie. So I hated the way that ended and not getting a chance there to get our hands on the ball.”
The Broncos had two decent drives in overtime. One was undermined by an offensive pass interference call against Eric Decker that Manning called “very disappointing,” and the other ended in a decision to punt with the ball at the New England 37-yard line and not quite five minutes remaining.
“We just were probably five yards short of where we needed to get to to have a realistic shot of making a field goal,” Del Rio said. Had the wind been at the Broncos’ backs, Del Rio said he might have sent Matt Prater out to attempt a game-winning field goal. Against the wind, he said special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers told him a 53-yard attempt was too far.
The game had enough subplots for a Russian novel, including a first-half cameo by a brilliant Broncos defense that left for intermission and never came back. In the end, all anyone is likely to remember is that the Broncos could not hold a 24-point lead and that Manning, the four-time most valuable player and certain Hall-of-Famer, was reduced to an ordinary quarterback in the blustery conditions.
More than ever, the Broncos’ Super Bowl hopes seem to hinge not only on all the things that must normally go right to be the last team standing, but also on environmental conditions that don’t rob their superstar of his powers.