What we don’t know: Exactly when New England’s star quarterback will play in another meaningful game.
With the Patriots having lost to Denver in Sunday’s AFC championship game, Brady’s next big challenge is winning again in court.
If the NFL succeeds in its legal efforts, Brady will have to serve a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season for his role in the "Deflategate" controversy. The league’s appeal to the decision made last July by a U.S. District Court rejecting such punishment is set to be heard in March.
Brady’s lawyers did an outstanding job defending him during the first judicial go-around. When it comes to football, the Patriots must now do their part by giving Brady the same kind of strong support needed for him to succeed.
Brady has long carried New England’s offense but maybe never to the same extent as during the past season. Injuries to skill-position talent played a major part in forcing Brady to do more with less. He was a frontrunner for league MVP honors until midseason when the roster began getting decimated.
Left tackle Nate Solder and running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount landed on injured reserve. Wide receiver Julian Edelman, tight end Rob Gronkowski and replacement left tackle Sebastian Vollmer each missed multiple games as well.
For the first time since Bill Belichick became New England’s head coach in 2000, the Patriots lost four of their final six regular-season games. The killer was a Week 17 road defeat against a lowly Miami Dolphins squad. It cost New England the AFC’s No. 1 seed that Denver claimed.
Having home-field advantage gave the Broncos an edge in their 20-18 win over the Patriots. So did Denver’s offensive philosophy that put another graybeard quarterback in better position to succeed.
The Broncos ended the 2014 season knowing that Peyton Manning, 39, was no longer at an elite quarterback due to the effects of multiple neck surgeries. This was one of the things that led to a head coaching change with the return of Gary Kubiak, who took a page from his days as Denver’s offensive coordinator during John Elway’s final two seasons at quarterback.
The 1997 and 1998 Broncos triumphed in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII largely because the Terrell Davis-led ground attack took pressure off Elway in the passing game. Though the 2015 Broncos don’t feature that kind of bell-cow rusher, the combination of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman has provided the kind of balance Kubiak sought from his unit during the second half of the season.
Denver pounded away at New England’s defense and chewed clock with 99 yards on 30 carries. The Patriots rushed 17 times for only 44 yards, 11 of which came on a Brady scramble.
Brady is healthier than Manning and still isn’t showing signs of age at 38. However, the play selection in the AFC title game is proof that you can have too much of a good thing — which is a lesson Belichick should have learned considering none of his four championship teams was so reliant on the passing game.
Brady threw 56 times compared to Manning’s 32 attempts, making it easier for the Broncos to tee off with their pass rush against a Patriots offensive line that was overmatched. Brady took a beating in getting sacked four times along with enduring double-digit hits and knockdowns.
Brady still almost sent into overtime before being intercepted on a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds. The fact New England was so close to reaching a seventh Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick era even with these issues at least provides promise for the future. The Patriots will be right back in the championship mix next season with better health, personnel upgrades and renewed commitment to taking the ball out of Brady’s hands a little more.
Brady and New England just have to hope now that he isn’t taken off the field by the NFL’s disciplinary system.