October 8, 2012
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. —
The comparisons not only are inevitable, they seem absolutely necessary. You cannot put Tom Brady in one uniform and Peyton Manning in the other on a given Sunday without drawing contrasts, without arguing who is greater and why.
It has to be Brady vs. Manning. It has be Brady's Patriots vs. Manning's Colts and now Manning's Broncos. It has to be to Manning's post-neck surgery arm strength vs. the vintage Peyton's arm strength. It was to be Peyton and Brady vs. Eli, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and the rest of the quarterback world. There must be comparisons. Always.
"Two great players, obviously," coach Bill Belichick said after his Patriots defeated the Broncos, 31-21, Sunday at Gillette Stadium. And then Belichick, the master of understatement, sensed that even he had undersold the historical significance of their 13th and — who knows? — perhaps last meeting. He added, "Two great, great players."
Yet in reporting that Brady now holds a 9-4 edge in a rivalry that includes some of the most vital AFC games of the 21st century, we are avoiding a greater truth on this day. In reporting that Manning hit 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Brady hit 23 of 31 for 223 yards, one TD and no picks, we are avoiding the real story.
The real story is the Patriots' running game. The real story is the offensive balance of the 2012 Patriots, a balance we haven't seen around Foxborough in a while. The real story is the up-tempo, no-huddle offense that held new Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's blitzes at bay to … you got it, run for 251 of a total 444 offensive yards.
When you walk into a matchup of the greatest quarterbacks of the past dozen years and you walk out screaming Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and even Danny Woodhead, let's be honest, you may think a guy's head is made of wood.
Yet the Patriots did not set a franchise record of 35 first downs, the most spanning 793 games, because Brady threw for 400 yards or even 250 yards. The Patriots hit the eighth-highest single-game total first downs in NFL history because they had their first back-to-back, 200-yard rushing games since 1978.
They had 247 against the Bills in Buffalo last week. And their 251 against the Broncos were the most since they ran for 277 against the Raiders in 2008.
"It's awesome, man," said Ridley, in his second NFL year out of LSU. "I just have to say it takes a lot of pressure off Brady. That's our leader. That's our team. A lot of people key on him and our running back group has to get some pressure off him so he can be the quarterback he can be. If they're sitting back there staring Brady in the face every play, we can't be a one-dimensional offense."
The Patriots went much less to the run last year when they finished 20th rushing in the pass-happy NFL. No, they weren't the Giants, who finished last, and still won the Super Bowl. The truth is they have bounced around in their era of immense success. They finished seventh in rushing in 2004 with Corey Dillon, and sixth in 2008 when they spread it around a number of backs. Some seasons they're in the middle of the pack. Some years, like last year and 2006, when they were 24th, it seems like all Brady, all the time.
They entered Sunday eighth in the league in rushing, but, when all the games are completed by Monday night they will be near the top with 827 yards (compared to their opponents' 411).
"We're getting a lot of nickel defense," Brady said. "When they put little guys out there, we have to take advantage of it. I think we're playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We've got to keep doing it. It's only been five games [3-2]."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran 229 times in 2010 when the Patriots finished ninth in the NFL in rushing is the only Patriot to get at least 200 carries in the last five seasons. Belichick keeps saying he'll run whatever play it takes to win. Earlier in the season, he joked even if that means 500 quarterback sneaks.
Good grief, he might have only been half-kidding. With the emergence of Ridley and Bolden, Woodhead had been fading into the woodwork. He had 47 yards on this day and caught a pass for 25 yards. When was the last time you saw the Patriots run it on third and 17 and get a first down as Woodhead gained 19 yards? Never, maybe?
"The call came in and [offensive coordinator] John McDaniels said, 'I think we can get this,'" Brady said, laughing. "They were in a pretty light personnel group. Danny found the crease. That was huge."
It's easier to run no-huddle at home, obviously, and Belichick said he wanted to speed things up against the Broncos to keep them from substituting at will.
"They were able to do it at times, but other times they couldn't," Belichick said. When they weren't substituting we could get a little bit better idea of what they were going to do with the group that was in there."
It worked. After much being made of Del Rio's arrival and their defensive aggression, the Broncos were guessing a lot and on their heels. Sure, Brady threw well. So did Manning. This was the first time in NFL history both quarterbacks entered a game with more than 300 career touchdowns. This was only the second time both quarterbacks entered a game with more than 125 victories. What? You expected them to be horrible?
But, be honest, after the trip to the Super Bowl last winter, did you expect the Patriots to come out early the next season and score seven rushing touchdowns over two games for the first time in more than 30 years? Yes, he fumbled late in the game and that'll go over lousy with Belichick, but riddle me this: Did you expect to come out of Brady vs. Peyton with the key word "Ridley"?
"I messed up," said Ridley, who fumbled twice last season, didn't dress in the AFC title game and dressed but didn't play in the Super Bowl. "You can't make up any excuses. I'm sure coach is going to have something to say about that."
After he ran for a career-best 125 yards against Tennessee, Ridley hit another high: 151. His 490 yards through five games is the most since Corey Dillon had 522 en route to a team record 1,635 yards.
"Different scheme, different style runners, no Corey Dillon," Belichick said in playing down any comparison to 2004.
Yet it is that same added dimension. Not only does Brady get you with the scalpel; the running game gets you with the meat cleaver. It's a dimension not even the great Manning could overcome.
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