The single most important regular season game of the 2015 season happened on a snowy night in Denver the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The powerful 10-0 New England Patriots were going up against the 8-2 Denver Broncos featuring the gangly talents of back up quarterback Brock Osweiler. If the Broncos had any hopes of competing for home field advantage in the AFC playoffs, they would have to win this ball game. Let’s look back on this wild affair and analyze why it ranks as one of the most significant games of the past 25 years in the NFL.
Simply put, the two best offensive players in the NFL since 2000 have been Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Their greatness would manifest itself season after season. Early in his career, Brady was solid, mature and dependable while Manning was explosive, dynamic and dominant. Come playoff time, Brady’s team would win and Manning’s team (Indianapolis) would lose. That all changed when Manning actually put together a sensational effort in the AFC championship game following the 2006 season. He followed that up with a decent showing in Super Bowl XLI and his first world championship.
Brady came back the following season with a season for the ages. Tom Brady’s first ten games of the 2007 season: The greatest performance by any NFL player I have witnessed in 40 years of watching football. That greatness was put to the test by the unrelenting pass rush of Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and the New York Giants. Brady showed off his guts in the loss which would become a trademark as he aged in this league.
Manning and Brady, along with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger dominated the AFC over the next several seasons. In 2012, Manning signed with Denver. In 2013, he had his best season in the NFL and easily defeated the Patriots in that season’s AFC Championship game. And, in 2014, his team lost at home to the Colts of all teams, one week before the ridiculous Deflategate “scandal.” Brady was heroic in helping New England win the Super Bowl over Seattle. Of course, he owes a big thank you to a series of unbelievable events at the end of that game. But, Brady did his part for a certainty.
The 2015 season started well for the Patriots. They scored a ton of points and Brady, which has become his thing in recent years, never turned the ball over. Get this: he has thrown six interceptions in his last 1000 passes! Denver, likewise, got off to a good start. This time, it was not due to Manning. First-year coach Gary Kubiak and the 2015 Broncos were all about that defense. Von Miller and Chris Harris are two of the best defensive players in the league. They also had Aqib Talib, Demarcus Ware, TJ Ward and Derek Wolfe among others! Something was off with Manning and it remained that way all season. But, his poor play reached its climax in a week 9 home game vs. the Chiefs.
On the same day he was being honored for his longevity and brilliance, Manning threw just as many passes to the Kansas City Chiefs as he was to his own guys. He was benched that day, then shut down while he healed from a foot injury. Enter Brock Osweiler. Osweiler was steady in a win at Chicago which was preserved by the defense. They stuffed the Bears on a 2-point conversion attempt with a few seconds left.
New England started to struggled during the middle of the season when their two most dynamite playmakers, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis were injured. They limped into a Monday night game against Buffalo and won an ugly game, 20-13, losing WR Danny Amendola. During the week leading up to the Broncos’ game, the Patriots activated a little-used 21 year old name Chris Harper for receiver depth.
Thus, the battle was set for November 29th, 2015. Denver vs. New England.
It was a glorious night for football. Almost every game looks gorgeous when being played in Denver, but the snow and the contrasting uniforms just added a visual element that gave an additional splendor to the evening. If the Patriots were bothered by Denver’s awesome defense or their own rash of injuries, they sure didn’t show it. They took the opening kickoff, drove the length of the field and scored on a Rob Gronkowski TD. A few minutes later, they intercepted Osweiler, and that led to a touchdown by TE Scott Chandler. It was 14-0 and New England appeared to be on cruise control.
The Patriots and the Broncos lost important defensive cogs to injury in the 2nd quarter. Dont’a Hightower and Derek Wolfe went out respectively. Hightower’s loss was critical with Jamie Collins already missing from the Patriots’ interior. Denver started running the ball well led by the underrated CJ Anderson. Ronnie Hillman scored untouched on a long jaunt in the second quarter cutting the lead to 14-7 at the break.
Osweiler was not bad, but his receivers were not doing him any favors. Demaryius Thomas dropped several passes on this night. New England’s cornerbacks, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler were tougher than Denver’s receivers and kept the Pats ahead through the third quarter. On the first play of the 4th, Brady hit Brandon Bolden on a Patriot staple, the wheel route and New England appeared to be in control, leading 21-7.
On Denver’s next offensive series, they went 0-3 on pass plays. Osweiler got walloped on a blitz by venerable Jerod Mayo and the Broncos looked out of it. New England was on their way with 13 minutes left to an 11-0 record and Denver would be 8-3.
Then, everything changed! Remember how the Patriots activated Chris Harper from off their practice squad. Yeah, he figured into this game, this season, and ultimately, NFL history. Without Edelman and Amendola, two of the great punt returners of the 21st century on the active roster, Harper waited for the Britton Colquitt punt. He called for a fair catch which would give the Pats good field position to try and put the game away. But, he muffed it. Denver seemed to be totally revitalized.
The Broncos started dominating the line of scrimmage. Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders started making big plays. Anderson scored from the 15 and it was game on. Six minutes later, Denver added a field goal and it was 21-17.
When the Patriots got the ball back, they tried to run out the clock. However, Rob Gronkowski got called for an OPI and then got knocked out of the game. The Broncos got the ball back with time running out. On a second and goal from the ten, Alan Branch dropped Osweiler for an 8-yard loss. But, Pat Chung was called for a DPI. On the next play, Osweiler found Andre Caldwell for the go-ahead TD.
There was now just one minute to play. The Patriots were down three in a snowstorm. They would need to rely on Chandler and Jojo Lafell to get them into field goal range. Somehow, they managed to get to the twenty-nine with four seconds left. Stephen Gostkowski drilled the kick through and the game went to OT.
From there, it did not last long. The Pats went three-and-out and the Broncos got a dramatic 48-yard touchdown run from Anderson. There would be a race to that crucial top seed in the AFC after all. Brock Osweiler’s 270 yards passing overcame Brady’s 280 and stamped himself as a more than capable back up.
Following the game, Patriots’ fans were in a state of shock. Their perfect season was over. They complained about the officials, but, truthfully, when you can’t stop the run, you can’t go there. They complained about their injuries. But, Denver was playing without Peyton Manning, so…you know what I mean. The fact is: Denver beat New England as one of their players, Chris Harper dropped a punt. Case closed.
Denver did not exactly streak down the stretch. They were crushed in the second half against Pittsburgh and single-handedly stopped by Khalil Mack against Oakland. Yet, their dramatic Monday Night victory against AJ McCarron and the Cincinnati Bengals was enough to get them to 11-4 ahead of their season finale vs. the slumping San Diego Chargers.
The Patriots, on the other hand, went into their next game at home vs. Philadlephia as huge favorites. Again, they jumped out to a 14-0 lead. This time, a combination of solid play from Sam Bradford and three…count em’…three return touchdowns did them in. They rallied. But, it wasn’t enough. They lost 35-28 and now, that top seed looked like a long shot.
After two wins, they went into New York. The Jets were boosted by Ryan Fitzpatrick and led the Pats late. But, there is no quit in Tom Brady as he led them to a tie in the waning moments. The Patriots won the OT coin toss, but elected to defer. The Jets marched down the field and won it, knocking New England down to 12-3. They still had a chance at home field advantage when they were to travel to Miami to face the already eliminated Dolphins.
New England was dreadful in this game. Tom Brady barely threw the ball and when he did, he hurt his ankle. They tried to run ancient Stephen Jackson to no avail. Miami won. Now, all the Broncos would have to do was beat lowly San Diego and they would get the top seed. A funny thing happened, though. San Diego competed. Osweiler had some passes tipped, deflected and picked. He was off the mark.
Enter Peyton Manning. Manning wasn’t much better, but just seeing him on the field jolted Denver’s home crowd and apparently, their running attack. They gashed the Chargers the rest of the way, clinching that all-important top seed. I can’t even think of how it would have gone for Denver had Manning needed to win the championship game in New England!
THE 2015 AFC PLAYOFFS
The AFC playoffs got its start with Kansas City destroying Houston. Later that day, Pittsburgh faced Cincinnati and this game cannot be described in written form. If you remember it, you know what I mean. The Bengals were without Andy Dalton, thus Pittsburgh controlled most of the action. They led 15-0 including an unreal TD catch by Martavis Bryant before Cincy rallied behind McCarron. The Bengals scored to take the lead 16-15 with less than two minutes in the game. Ben Roethlisberger injured his shoulder, so Pittsburgh turned to Landry Jones.
With Jones at QB, Vontaze Burfict made a huge pick. Indeed, the Bengals were so happy, they ran out of the stadium.
The game should have been over. But, Jeremy Hill fumbled AFTER he got what would have been a game-clinching first down. Pittsburgh put their disabled starting QB back in. He threw some short balls and got the Steelers to around midfield.
From here, on a slant intended for Antonio Brown, Burfict elbowed Brown and knocked him into the middle of next week as Gorilla Monsoon used to say. Burfict was penalized and the Steelers were in field goal range. Steelers’ assistant coach, Joey Porter pranced on the field, you know, to check on Brown and started jawing with some Bengals. And then, Adam Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Yes, the Bengals somehow managed to lose this game.
Hence, the Broncos would next play Pittsburgh without Le’Veon Bell, without a concussed Antonio Brown and with a crippled Ben Roethlisberger.
The good news for the Steelers was at this point the Broncos’ offense was trending down. Manning’s arm was completely shot. Pittsburgh made a series of big plays in the first half to jump out to a 13-9 lead. Late in the fourth, the Steelers moved the ball into Denver territory only to have Fitz Toussaint fumble. The stage was set for Manning to conjure up some of his old big play ability…and with a major assist from Anderson, he did it! The Broncos prevailed 23-16 and moved on. Who would they face? The Patriots, of course. They turned back Andy Reid’s Chiefs. Better news, they had Amendola and Edelman back in the line up. The stage was set for a classic AFC championship game.
In the first half, it was Manning surprisingly who was the sharper of the two quarterbacks. Jamie Collins was beaten not once, but twice by Owen Daniels and Steve Gostkowski missed an extra point. The score headed into the 4th quarter was 17-12. (I was at the NFC Championship game in Charlotte watching on a TV next to a concession stand biting my nails.)
The 4th quarter of that game was a microcosm of 2015 football. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski WOULD NOT QUIT! Von Miller was simply awesome. And Manning was finished, done. New England completely dominated the 4th quarter but could not convert on 4th down on consecutive possessions.
Down 20-12 with about two minutes to play, they started one last drive. Brady was walloped on three straight plays, all incompletions. On 4th and ten and against Denver’s injury-riddled secondary, Brady hit on a vintage floater to Gronk for the 1st down. Four plays later and with 20 seconds left, Brady hit Gronk again for six. Unfortunately for New England, the season ended on the next play, as the 2-pointer was intercepted.
Denver went on to the Super Bowl and won despite the worst quarterbacking by a winning player in Super Bowl history from Manning. The good news was their amazing defense led by Miller caused Cam Newton to play some of the worst quarterback in Super Bowl history as well. The AFC champions were battle tested and deserved to be the 2015 World Champions. The Panthers were sloppy and dismal that day; they deserved to lose.
Thus, the story of Brock Osweiler and that fateful night of November 29th, 2015 and the resultant chain reaction of events makes that Pats-Broncos match up one of the most important regular season in NFL history.
Osweiler went on to Houston and had a miserable 2016 season there. It ended with a three interception masterpiece in Foxboro. He was subsequently traded to Cleveland and that didn’t work out. So, he signed back on with Denver and was a 51-23 loser last week at Philly.
That brings us to the present…full circle. New England at Denver on a Sunday night in November!
Brandon Fazzolari (aka Dr. Super Bowl) writes about the Buffalo Bills for Pro Football Spot. @spot_bills