It is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. We whisper this consoling lie to losers. The truth is that it is whether your win or lose, and it is also how you play the game. For those who are familiar with Tom Brady’s nine playoff losses, Denver’s 20–18 triumph on Sunday will appear, at first glance, to fit comfortably in the genre of “high-flying offense downed by top defense,” which is as reliable an event as any in the playoffs. In fact, it was one of the great football games ever played, and it is a shame to think that the New England fan base might be too spoiled to appreciate it.
The Patriots did more than lose to the Broncos on Sunday, they brought the curtain down on the fiasco that was—and still is, somehow, but barely—Deflategate. When Brady walked off the field for the last time, he did so with his honor intact. They had called him a crybaby and a whiner all week, and he had played like he’d heard them. Twenty-three times the Denver defense pounded him into the turf with ruthless glee—more than any QB had been hit in any game ever—and each time Brady got back up. It was like watching the end of a horror film that had gone on for more than a year. His name smeared, his accomplishments trashed by talking heads from coast to coast, his first- and second-best running backs out with injuries, his top two receivers hobbling through their routes with busted, possibly broken, feet, down four of five starting offensive lineman, whose rookie replacements seemed unclear on what day of the week it was, never mind their jobs; bruised, battered, and literally bleeding, Tom Brady just kept playing.
Standing opposed was one of the ten best defenses of all time, crafted with audacious alacrity by general manager John Elway, sixty-thousand-plus Broncos fans, and Brady’s archnemesis, the fading but crafty Peyton Manning. Three times Brady had the ball on the Broncos’ side of the field, down by eight, at the end of the game. Twice he turned it over on downs. The third time he found his giant tight end, Rob Gronkowski, for 40 on fourth and ten, and then Gronk again for 6 points on fourth and goal with seventeen seconds left. At this moment, the Broncos fans watching in front of me looked like Bigfoot had just puked in their pup tent. “What is happening?” one bleated softly into the surrounding din. The score was 20–18. The Patriots’ kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, had missed on an extra point in the first quarter, otherwise it would have been 20–19, and enough for him to kick another to tie the game. Instead, a 2-point conversion attempt was required, and this failed when Brady, running for his life, threw a ball that bounced off Julian Edelman’s hands and into those of Bradley Roby, who plays for Denver.
And so the 2015 Patriots, the latest iteration of a monster that has haunted the dreams of professional football fans across America for fourteen years, shuddered, stumbled, and finally breathed their last, two yards from overtime, with twelve seconds to go, in their tenth AFC championship game. I have rarely been more proud to be a Patriots fan, but then I have watched enough football to know that no team, no matter how gifted, should ever be favored in the playoffs, on the road, against the NFL’s best defense. That Brady’s team was just confirms what anyone who watched him play poorly and still nearly win would have to admit: in defeat as in victory, he’s the greatest of all time. The story, however, was the Broncos’ defense.
When Elway took over running the Broncos in 2011, the team had just lost the most games in franchise history. The head coach, the baby-faced Josh McDaniels, once and future offensive coordinator for the Patriots, had been fired twelve games into his second season, after alienating, and then trading, putative franchise QB and world class jerk Jay Cutler to Chicago for draft picks subsequently blown on failures like Alphonso Smith and Tim Tebow. In the years since, Elway has pulled off one of the more remarkable franchise rebuilds this side of Danny Ainge turning the Celtics from mud soup into champion flambé back in 2007.
Like Ainge’s successful pursuit of Kevin Garnett, Elway’s makeover has orbited around the final years of a generational talent. When Manning hit the free-agent market for the first time at age 35, he appeared done. He had just missed the entire season with a neck injury, and the Colts, a cowardly, trembling franchise, were terrified that Peyton would never recover and excited by the prospect of snagging Andrew Luck, considered the best QB prospect since Peyton himself, at the top of the draft. So they hurried their greatest player out the door and congratulated themselves on, well, their luck.
Four years later, the Colts are mired in a tar pit of incompetence and ill will, and while Andrew Luck has been almost as advertised, he hasn’t been the winner that Peyton was, and anyway is currently coming off a serious kidney injury, sustained while attempting to play behind a pathetic excuse for an offensive line. Meanwhile the Broncos and their ancient quarterback are heading to the Super Bowl.
Having landed Peyton, Elway knew that he didn’t have much time. He had to build a roster the way one does in a Madden video game: for the short term. The NFL is dominated by long-gamers, sharps like Pats coach Bill Belichick but also Ozzie Newsome, the brilliant GM of the Baltimore Ravens and perhaps the best executive in sports. Both teams have a system built around drafting well and almost never paying big bucks for free agents. They might add a well-priced veteran here and there, but mostly they stick to their guns and watch their fan-favorites cash in elsewhere. This has been a recipe for long-term success, for both franchises.
Elway, on the other hand, has been playing loose since Peyton arrived. First he aggressively targeted New England’s players in free agency, counting on Belichick to be cheap and overthink things. Did Elway overpay? It’s hard to say. He poached Brady’s favorite receiver Wes Welker, who, even though he aged quickly after defecting to the Broncos, was good enough to get them their first Super Bowl berth three years ago. Aqib Talib, the star cornerback, was next, and even if the Pats countered by bringing in Darrelle Revis for a one-year championship run, it’s hard not to think that Elway was right in thinking Talib was worth the money.
So much of running a football team is about timing. It is more like planting a garden than building a house: you need everything to bloom at just the right time in order to have a shot at a title. Elway has managed to construct both a record-breaking offense, in 2013, and a record-breaking defense, this year, within two seasons of one another. And had his timing been eight months better in either direction, he might have matched the one with the other, and his Broncos might already have a title now, instead of being underdogs in their second Super Bowl in three years. If one has to believe that the Broncos are a better bet this time than the last, it’s because, no matter how many times we manage to convince ourselves otherwise, it is better to go into the playoffs with the best defense than with the best offense.
The year of the Broncos record-setting offense, 2013, they lost in the divisional round to Joe Flacco and the Ravens. Flacco played so well that offseason—upsetting both New England and Denver on his way to a title—that he forced Ozzie to deviate from principle and give him a max contract, depleting the team’s depth, and, perhaps, hastening this year’s collapse. Elway has, however, so far managed to match each of his high-priced free agents by drafting a nearly equivalent player. First, he used the high draft pick from McDaniels last season to select defensive end Von Miller, who spent Sunday running around the Patriots’ poor back-up right tackle, a charming astrophysics major from Stanford named Cameron Fleming. Miller finished with two and a half sacks and an interception. Then Elway paired Miller with DeMarcus Ware, the Dallas Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks, whom Jerry Jones, in his infinite wisdom, decided was washed up at age 30. He wasn’t. Aqib Talib was matched with Chris Harris Jr., who went undrafted but promptly made the all-rookie team when Elway signed him in 2011. He might have played Sunday with a broken shoulder but was still good enough to shut down the best of New England’s receivers. Many teams sign lots of free agents with sky-high expectations, but Elway’s renovation of his defense two years ago turned into this year’s dominant unit, good enough to extend his championship Peyton window from three years to four.
Still, what made Sunday’s game special wasn’t only the defense, it was also the Broncos’ special teams, led by yet another of Elway’s undrafted finds, punter Brandon Colquitt. Twice Colquitt pinned the Patriots inside their own five-yard line on crucial, back-to-back third-quarter drives—the second time thanks to a magnificent, leaping effort by the gunner to keep the ball from entering the end zone for a touchback. The punt team is the last thing you learn to love as a football fan, and Sunday’s display was what pushed the game from solid to special.
The first thing that happens to you as a football fan is you become convinced your quarterback is terrible. It’s in the nature of the camera angle at which the game is broadcast: you can’t see whether the receivers are winning their matchups or not, and so it’s hard not to think that everyone is wide open, just out of sight. Brady did not play well on Sunday, but the idea that he was terrible simply isn’t true. For that, you would need to look to at Carson Palmer against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game, who threw four picks and surrendered two fumbles as his team went down 49–15, a margin of 34 points, a little less than half of the 78 points that have made up the combined margin in all nine of Brady’s playoff losses. He has twenty-two wins in the playoffs, the most ever, and if he isn’t back in this same game again next year, for a record sixth year in a row, I’ll eat my own socks.
This is the fourth installment of Stephen Squibb’s football column. Read more here.