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Snap Judgments: Patriots’ season comes to an end with loss to Broncos in AFC title game

01.19.14 at 6:03 pm ET
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DENVER — In a year in which the Patriots suffered wave after wave of injury issues, they hit a tipping point in Sunday afternoon’s AFC title game.

Cornerback Aqib Talib went down in the second quarter after taking a low hit from former teammate Wes Welker, and Peyton Manning and the Broncos were able to take advantage. Manning went back time and again at his replacements as Denver came away with a 26-16 win over New England, ending the Patriots’ season and lifting the Broncos into Super Bowl XLVIII against the winner of the 49ers-Seahawks game later Sunday afternoon.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ended up 24-for-38 for 277 yards with a touchdown, while wide receiver Julian Edelman finished with 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown and running back Shane Vereen added four carries for 34 yards.

Manning was impressive all afternoon, going 32-for-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns to post his second postseason win over Brady and the Pats. In addition, Demaryius Thomas added seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown, while Julius Thomas finished with eight catches for 85 yards.

The Patriots were never really in this one, as Manning and the Broncos were in control from the jump, taking a 10-0 lead and never trailing on the day. Denver held a 13-3 edge after two quarters, but unlike their November meeting — where New England was able to climb out of a 24-point halftime hole on the way to an overtime win — there was no comeback for the Patriots in this one. The Broncos and Manning put up an impressive 13-play, 80-yard drive that took 7:08 to open the second half and effectively end the game.

New England cut the lead to 23-10 midway through the fourth when Brady found Edelman for the Patriots’ first touchdown of the day, but New England could get no closer.

Here are a few quick notes:

WHAT WENT WRONG

– The Patriots defense — which was in a 4-2-5 look for most of the afternoon — suffered a fatal blow when Talib went down with what was initially announced as a rib injury, and then later changed to a knee injury. On the play that left Talib sidelined, Welker went low on the Pro Bowl cornerback on a pick play. Manning was able to single out Talib’s replacements, including rookie Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard on a series of drives late in the first half and the start of the second half. It was an ugly series for the New England secondary, and eerily reminiscent of last year’s AFC title game, when Talib went down early against the Ravens and Baltimore was able to take advantage of the situation.

– It was not the quarterback’s finest hour, as Brady had a handful of overthrows early on missed connections with a variety of targets, including Edelman and Austin Collie. Whether it was the result of play-calling, personnel or situational football, it was also a sluggish day for the New England running game, which was never able to gain any sort of traction. After rolling to 431 yards in the previous three games, LeGarrette Blount had five carries for six yards against the Broncos.

– Part of it was due to the fact that the Patriots were more inclined to drop extra defensive backs into coverage — a numbers game, really — but New England’s inability to get any sort of pressure on Manning all day played a big part in the success of the Denver quarterback. Chandler Jones and Andre Carter were able to fight through blocks and get a hand on Manning on a couple of occasions in the first half, but that was about it. Manning was not sacked on the afternoon.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

– The Patriots were able to get a really impressive performance out of a handful of players. On the offensive side of the ball, Edelman was the most dependable part of the passing game, and New England worked consistently to try and get him isolated in man coverage — he was the best and most consistent part of the offense all afternoon. It worked for part of the day, but the Broncos were able to shut him out on a couple of occasions. (It didn’t help that Brady flat-out missed him on a couple of occasions, including on a key pass attempt early that would have almost certainly gone for a touchdown.)

– On defense, it was a relatively good day for the linebacking crew of Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, who were able to make several positive plays over the course of the afternoon. In particular, Collins was active in both run and pass defense. (Collins emerged as a real force on the defensive side of the ball over the final few games.) In addition, punter Ryan Allen was able to do a good job early on when it came to tilting the field — he had three punts in the first two quarters that averaged 49 yards.

Aqib Talib questionable to return after Wes Welker delivers a questionable body blow

01.19.14 at 4:10 pm ET
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DENVER — The Patriots No. 1 cornerback is questionable to return after a former Patriot delivered a big body blow.

Aqib Talib left midway through the second quarter after taking a shot from Wes Welker to the right side of his upper body on an incomplete Peyton Manning pass over the middle intended for Demaryius Thomas. He was announced as questionable with a rib injury and then, after halftime, a knee injury was added to the prognosis.

Talib went down immediately and hunched over, holding his stomach and side. He was on the field several minutes as the Patriots training staff tended to him.

Replays showed Welker going low, aiming for his ribs and making contact with Talib’s hip and right side. The Broncos used several crossing routes in the first half to free their receivers but were not call for any pick penalties. Michael Hoomanawanui was called for such a penalty, a key penalty on third down that pushed the Patriots out of field goal position on their third drive.

As the Broncos were driving down the field 93 yards for a touchdown, Talib was escorted by Patriots medical personnel to the locker room. He returned to the end of the Patriots defensive bench on the team’s sideline as the Patriots were driving down the field.

Talib walked up and down the sideline with his helmet on, appearing as if he wanted back in the game, as the Patriots kicked a field goal. But instead, he was led back into the locker room for an early halftime.

Read More: AFC Championship, Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots

Report: Tom Brady played through a ligament tear in his throwing hand

01.19.14 at 3:05 pm ET
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DENVER — What’s a little cold when you’ve had to battle through a torn ligament in your throwing hand?

Albert Breer of the NFL Network reported hours before kickoff of Sunday’s AFC championship that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady actually tore a ligament in his throwing hand.

Brady repeatedly denied that anything was seriously wrong when TV cameras during the Dolphins game showed his hand grotesquely swollen.

Brady said at the time it was just a typical injury that a quarterback goes through in a season. On Sunday, Breer reported it was more than just a bruise. Brady had ligament damage in his hand. Of course, Brady played through it without surgery or missing a single snap this season.

Read More: Albert Breer, New England Patriots, NFL Network, Tom Brady

Inactive analysis: Aaron Dobson ready to go while Kenbrell Thompkins is sidelined for AFC title game

01.19.14 at 1:39 pm ET
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DENVER — The following players were announced as inactive for Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game: offensive lineman Chris Barker, linebacker Steve Beauharnais, defensive end Jake Bequette, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, tight end D.J. Williams, cornerback Justin Green and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. Here’s what the moves mean for Sunday’s game.

Thompkins: The rookie receiver has been hindered by a hip issue that has plagued him for the last month-plus. Then, last Saturday, after playing 38 snaps against the Colts, he suffered a concussion. Expect more reps for fellow rookie Aaron Dobson, who will be active for his first career playoff game against the Broncos after sitting out against the Colts.

Barker: The rookie guard out of Nevada has been on a developmental track most of the season as the eighth — and last — offensive lineman on the depth chart. The fact that he’s inactive means the Patriots probably feel pretty good about the health of the rest of the offensive line.

Beauharnais: The rookie linebacker out of Rutgers, who was downgraded during the week because of a stomach bug, has spent much of the year as a developmental prospect.

Bequette: The second-year defensive end takes his 12th healthy scratch of the year. Much like most of the previous 11, expect veteran Andre Carter and rookie Michael Buchanan to see most of the reps in his place.

Sopoaga: The veteran defensive lineman, who was acquired in a deadline deal with the Eagles, started his career in New England with a bang, but has been surpassed on the depth chart by youngster Sealver Siliga.

Williams: The third tight end gets edged out by Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui in hopes of adding some depth at other positions.

Green: The rookie defensive back out of Illinois has played in two games this season, and has been a depth presence in the secondary and when it comes to special teams.

Setting the scene from the Mile High City as Patriots battle Denver Broncos in AFC championship

01.19.14 at 1:04 pm ET
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DENVER — Mother Nature is apparently a big fan of the Broncos and Patriots.

In January weather more befitting of Florida or Southern California, sunshine and 67 degrees is expected for the 1 p.m. MT kickoff here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, as the Patriots and Broncos do battle in ideal conditions for the AFC championship.

The temperature is expected to reach as high as 69 by halftime before cooling off in the evening.

If that holds, it will unofficially go down as the warmest outdoor game in Patriots playoff history.

On Jan. 12, 1986, when the Patriots beat the Dolphins, 31-14, the game-time temperature at the Orange Bowl was 64 degrees. It was officially 60 when the Patriots lost in the 1998 playoffs in Jacksonville. When the Patriots beat the Chargers, 24-21, in the 2006 playoffs it was only 53 and Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville was only 59.

Ironically, today’s AFC championship is the 12th anniversary of the epic “Snow Bowl” at Foxboro Stadium, a game won by the Patriots over the Raiders, 16-13, in overtime in the last game ever played at the venue.

The two biggest injury question marks coming into the game appear to be the health of two rookie receivers that could challenge the Broncos secondary deep.

Kenbrell Thompkins continues to nurse a sore hip while Aaron Dobson is dealing with a stress fracture in his left foot. Both were limited all week in practice and both were questionable coming into the game. Dobson returned to practice on Wednesday after missing the Colts playoff game.

The Broncos have won both previous playoff meetings against the Patriots in Denver, beating the Patriots 22-17 in the 1986 AFC divisional round and winning, 27-13, in the 2005 playoffs, the game most infamously remembered by New England fans by Champ Bailey‘s game-changing 100-yard interception return off a Tom Brady pass to the end zone.

The Patriots gained their revenge two seasons ago when they blew out Tim Tebow and the Broncos, 45-10, in the divisional round. Including Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Patriots beat the Panthers, 32-29, Bill Belichick is 2-0 against John Fox in the postseason.

Read More: Aaron Dobson, AFC Championship, Bill Belichick, Champ Bailey

Wes Welker reportedly gives motivational speech to his Broncos on eve of AFC championship

01.19.14 at 12:23 pm ET
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DENVER — Wes Welker knows he’s lucky to have a second chance at his former team this season.

And this time, he wants to make the most of it.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Welker stepped up and spoke at the team’s meeting Saturday night after some encouraging last week from Denver head coach John Fox.

Fox is obviously aware that no one would like to make amends more than Welker after he failed to call off former Patriot Tony Carter on Nov. 24 at Gillette Stadium on a punt return late in overtime. The ball hit Carter and led to Stephen Gostkowski‘s game-winning field goal in the 34-31 Patriots win. The Broncos led 24-0 at halftime but collapsed quickly in the second half.

Welker spurned the Patriots last March and joined the Broncos, signing a two-year deal for $12 million, $1 million more per year than the Patriots offered.

Things have turned out quite well for Welker as he caught 73 passes for 778 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. He had a three-yard TD reception last week in the AFC divisional win over the Chargers.

Welker spent six seasons catching passes from Tom Brady in New England and reached two Super Bowls but both ended in losses. Welker is trying to reach his third Super Bowl in the last seven seasons.

Earlier in the week, Welker was asked to compare playing with both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. “It’s like comparing Picasso and Michelangelo,” he said last week. “It’s hard to compare the two.”

Read More: AFC Championship, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, nfl

Mike Petraglia, Chris Price set AFC championship stage from Denver for Patriots-Broncos

01.18.14 at 9:42 pm ET
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Read More: AFC Championship, Chris Price, Denver Broncos, Mike Petraglia

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