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Manning, Broncos deserve endless respect -- and even in defeat, so do the Patriots

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 19, 2014 03:09 PM

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463830455.jpgDENVER – And in the end, all the hackneyed buzzwords and narratives were put away until football comes around again next fall.

"Legends" and "legacies" were neither built nor damaged in Broncos' 26-16 victory over the Patriots Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game.

The "showdown" between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady was more lopsided that the score suggests, and yet the complicated and just plain unfortunate reasons for the Patriots' second straight conference title game defeat cannot entirely be dropped on the quarterback's shoulders.

And that notion that Bill Belichick is in "Peyton Manning's head." Oh, yes, we can probably retire that one forever, if we didn't do so sometime during the second half of the 2006 AFC Championship Game.

In the immediate aftermath of a brilliant performance by Manning – who was 32 of 43 for 400 yards and a pair of touchdowns – it's another word comes to mind, a singular compliment rather than a weary cliche:

Respect.

Genuine, appreciative, admiring respect. For the quarterback, for the superb team he led, and straight from the opposing locker room.

"They did a good job of mixing up plays and as always [Manning] did an excellent job of reading the defenses,'' said Belichick. "He got us in some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play-calling and recognition. We disguised and I think we got him a few times, but he certainly got us a few times too. And they've got a lot of good players. They're a tough team to match up against with all the skill players they have: backs, tight ends, receivers."

In bringing his career postseason record against the Patriots to 2-2, the magnitude of Manning's performance cannot be overstated. He was everything Jim Nantz and Phil Simms ever told you he was.

He expertly captained a stacked Denver offense that gained 507 total yards, a season-high for the Patriots' defense, and controlled the ball for 35 minutes 10 seconds. The Broncos converted 7 of 13 third downs, and during a stretch in which the Broncos scored on six straight possessions, it felt like he converted every single one of them in between random shouts of "Omaha!"

He wasn't sacked. He wasn't even officially hit. His uniform probably doesn't need to be washed before the Super Bowl.

And the momentum-altering interception that has sometimes marred his postseason performances – including last year's AFC playoff game on this very field against the Ravens – never came. It never even felt like it was coming, even as the Patriots gasped to within 23-10 on Julian Edelman's touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter.

Instead, Manning methodically exposed the Patriots' defense, particularly after essential cornerback Aqib Talib left with an knee injury after a vicious block/pick by Wes Welker early in the second quarter. Talib was one player – one more player – the Patriots could ill-afford to lose.

"As it turned out, that was a key play in the game,'' admitted Belichick. "I'll say he's a key player for us ... There's no more competitive guy in the locker room than Aqib Talib."

After Talib's departure, Manning utilized the Broncos' rich and varied array of weapons – Demaryius Thomas (seven catches, 134 yards), Julius Thomas (8, 80) and Eric Decker (5, 73) all had receptions of at least 21 yards – practically at will, though he wouldn't acknowledge specifically targeting Alfonzo Dennard.

Only some stout defense inside their own 20 – the Patriots forced three Matt Prater field goals after the Broncos had reached the red zone – prevented the celebration from commencing sooner.

While a Manning-led offense will get the brunt of the glory, deservedly, when it performs like this, the Broncos' defense was more than just an accomplice. Turns out that any suspicion that their seventh-ranked run defense was a mirage was misguided. Led by Terrance Knighton, who pulled off a spot-on Vince Wilfork imitation, LeGarrette Blount was held to six – six – yards, or as many as he totaled on his first three rushing touchdowns a week ago.

"[The Patriots] are a good running team, but we have some guys up front who don't like that,'' said Broncos defensive back Champ Bailey, who is going to the Super Bowl for the first time in his 15 seasons. "They didn't play the Broncos last week."

Everything they needed to go right went wrong. They couldn't get close to Manning, let alone close enough to force a mistake. He was untouchable in every sense, and the truth is this: the right team will play in New York in two weeks. To me, it's a "Beat LA'' moment, the equivalent of Celtics fans sending off the conquering Sixers in '82 with a respectful salute. I hope they beat the NFC champion.

And yet, once the haze of disappointment fades, that respect should belong to the Patriots as well. Hopefully it already does.

It's frustrating to be in the hunt every single year only to have it end with that Lombardi Trophy dream unfulfilled. I get that. But there will be some fans and people in my profession Monday morning who will howl about the nine-year drought of Super Bowl victories in the Brady/Belichick era as if it suggests a fatal shortcoming in the coach or the quarterback.

The ending was ugly, but it was a hell of a run this season given all of the unexpected road blocks, and it's worthy of big-picture appreciation. I don't understand those who lose all context on how difficult it is to get to this point, to the NFL's final four, especially when your star nose tackle, you dependable middle linebacker, your starting right tackle, and your all-universe tight end are lost along the way.

I can admit it: I thought the 2013 Patriots' Super Bowl hopes were shredded the moment Rob Gronkowski's blurted "They broke my [expletive] leg!" And yet here they were, piecing it together behind a brilliant coach, a group of intelligent veterans and encouraging young players, and a still-superb quarterback.

No, Tom Brady didn't have his best day Sunday. He overthrew open receivers down field three or four times in important moments, or moments when a big play was there for the taking. "I had some chances down some lanes and I certainly wish I could have made them,'' he acknowledged.

But let's not forget the degree of difficulty that he faces – or, as he subtly puts it, "the slim margin of error," a phrase he used again in the postgame.

He must hit on every one of those opportunities when they're present, because the limited talent on the Patriots' offense at this point in the season doesn't present them with the frequency that the Thomases and Decker and even a healthy Wes Welker do for the Broncos.

This is not due to some inadequacy of Belichick as a personnel man, or Brady's impatience with young players who run a 9-yard pattern when it was supposed to be 10 yards, dammit.

It's due to attrition. Aaron Hernandez, whose versatility made their hurry-up offense so effective a season ago, threw his life away in a particularly horrible and unfathomable way. Gronkowski came back from injury, dominated, and got hurt again. Aaron Dobson, a rookie deep-threat of promise, hurt his foot. Danny Amendola suffered a cringe-worthy injury in Week 1 and struggled to play effectively afterward.

Manning got his yardage in chunks, with dynamic players – particularly the Thomases – on the receiving end of his throws. Brady got his yardage in 5-yard increments throwing to Julian Edelman, a fine player who would be the Broncos' fourth or fifth receiver, and Austin Collie, whose injury history has put him on the fringe of the league.

To put it another way: On third down on the Patriots' first two possessions, Brady threw to Collie (incomplete) and Matthew Slater, who could not make his first reception of the season.

It's not an excuse for why the Patriots season ended in Denver Sunday. It's a reason. The healthier team, the home team, the deeper team, the better team won.

"I think this team is a resilient, tough team,'' Brady said, whose 5-yard scoring run with 5 minutes and 7 seconds left did pull the Patriots within a two-point conversion of making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. But befitting the theme of the day, they could not convert.

"We got beat today by a team that played really well and a good football team that plays really well at home,'' said Brady. "We have a good team. We just didn't play well today. One team gets to advance. That's the NFL playoffs."

It's hard to accept, what with the Lombardi Trophy count at Gillette Stadium remaining at three for another year. But it was proved beyond a doubt on the field Sunday, and that's how it's supposed to be.

So let's put one last narrative away: It's not the "end of an era." It's the end of a season, one in which a team worthy of our respect got as far as they deserved to go.

Until September, then, when the quest begins again.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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