|Patriots, Broncos overcame plenty of obstacles|
|Friday, January 17, 2014 9:23 PM|
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Embarrassing headlines. Sidelined superstars. Retooled offenses. Shredded defenses. It’s a wonder the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos made it this far.
Bill Belichick’s smarts and Tom Brady’s tenacity always seems to trump tribulation.
This season, they brushed aside the Tim Tebow distraction and overcame Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and the losses of Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to put the Patriots (13-4) into the AFC championship for the third straight year.
“I’m sure every team is probably at this point overcome a lot,” Brady said. “I know Denver has done a lot of those things, too. They’ve overcome a lot of things and injuries and so forth. It’s just part of the NFL football season.
“To get out there and play 16 weeks and really see where you stand at the end of those 16 weeks, getting to the playoffs, play the best teams and see if you can advance. It’s certainly not easy to do. It’s very challenging.”
Nobody does it better than Brady and Belichick, the best quarterback/coach combo in history with a record 18 playoff wins.
After last year’s stumble against Baltimore in the playoffs, John Fox and Peyton Manning also steered the Broncos (14-3) through a minefield to send Denver to its first conference championship in eight years.
“That shock of what happened against the Ravens contributed to this team being able to be as flexible as it has been and survive the adversity that it’s gone through,” said Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway, who led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s and now leads them from the front office instead of the huddle.
After losing Elvis Dumervil in the infamous fax fiasco when his renegotiated contract didn’t reach team headquarters in time, Elway hit the jackpot in free agency by signing Welker and Louis Vasquez on offense and Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on defense.
They helped the Broncos weather an injury epidemic that claimed Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Rahim Moore, Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris while rendering captains Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard backups for most of the season.
Fox overcame his own heart operation that sidelined him for a month and even a player quitting on him at midseason; Manning set a slew of records, including throwing for 55 TDs and 5,447 yards, to help the Broncos become the first 600-point team in league history.
The Broncos did it despite losing exceptional blindside protector Ryan Clady in Week 2 and being anchored by a converted guard who hadn’t played a full season at center in 14 years.
So, Manning sits just one win shy of returning to the Super Bowl just two years after he was jettisoned by the Indianapolis Colts following four neck surgeries that strengthened his resolve but weakened his throwing arm.
“You don’t take it for granted,” Manning said, “especially when you’ve been through an injury, been through a major change and you’re in the home stretch of your career.”
Both the Patriots and Broncos have quarterbacks known as grinders, who elevate the play of those around them because of their meticulous preparation.
The head coaches have very different reputations.
Belichick is known as a mostly dour mad genius — even Manning called him “the best coach that I’ve ever competed against” and Brady has high praise for the tone he sets.
“We’re challenged here on a daily basis by Coach Belichick to show up, do the right thing, always put the team first and I think that’s what this team has always been about,” Brady added.
Fox is the ultimate player’s coach whose bounce-off-the-walls energy and enthusiasm were very much needed after Josh McDaniels’ troubled tenure — and Elway suggested those qualities only increased after he had his aortic valve repaired in November.
“He’s got more energy than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Elway added. “That, to me, is the definition of John Fox: the energy level that he brings. He brings it to the practice field and it’s contagious. I think that’s why he was a perfect fit for us.”
The Patriots lose players left and right but with Belichick they’re always playing for trophies.
Elway has the Broncos doing the same thing again.
Unheralded players help Pats to AFC title game
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On paper, this New England team doesn’t measure up to others Belichick has taken to AFC championship games.
On the field, though, unheralded players replacing missing stars filled major roles to get the Patriots to where they are now — a win away from their second Super Bowl in three years.
“It doesn’t really matter how a player gets to the New England Patriots, whether he’s drafted, traded, signed as a free agent, signed as an unrestricted free agent, signed as a street free agent,” Belichick said. “It’s much more important what they do when they get here.”
Sealver Siliga wasn’t drafted in 2011. He was cut by three teams — the other three still in the playoffs. Now he’s filling the shoes of 5-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Wilfork, whose season ended when he tore his right Achilles tendon in his fourth game.
Matthew Mulligan was released by six teams, including the Patriots, after being ignored in the 2009 draft. Now he’s playing tight end after Gronkowski tore ligaments in his right knee and went on injured reserve Dec. 9.
More key starters for the Patriots (13-4) will miss Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos (14-3) because of season-ending injuries — linebackers Mayo and Brandon Spikes, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Then there are the rookies, 15 on the 53-man roster.
Now compare that to the team that went to the 2012 Super Bowl with Gronkowski, Wilfork, Welker and Aaron Hernandez. Or the one that got there four years earlier with an 18-0 record and Welker, Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. The Patriots lost both games to the New York Giants.
The Patriots’ two Super Bowl teams before that? They had Bruschi, Harrison, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour and won both.
McGinest goes all the way back to the heavy underdogs who beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl in the 2001 season to find a Patriots team similar to the current one.
How does Belichick do it? How does he head into his eighth AFC title game as Patriots coach with 25 players who weren’t on the team last season?
Is this the best job he’s done in his 14 years at the helm?
“I’m definitely not one to rate Bill’s coaching jobs,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, in his sixth year with the Patriots. “I think he does a great job every year.”
Belichick and his personnel staff find players unwanted elsewhere and constantly tinker with the practice squad so he has a deep pool he can pick from if necessary.
“It’s really just being diligent, turn over a lot of rocks looking for the right player, the right fit,” Belichick said.
Once they arrive, they better be ready for tough practices, stinging criticism and high expectations.
“We’re challenged here on a daily basis by coach Belichick to show up, do the right thing, always put the team first,” Brady said.
But to Belichick, the process isn’t that mysterious. If a newcomer is good enough, he can play for a team that could end up in the Super Bowl.
“That’s all decided by the players on the field. I don’t really have any control over that. I just try to evaluate what they do,” he added. “How the players’ roles unfold and how your roster ultimately gets decided is based on performance. It’s as simple as that.”
Super Bowl would be a highlight for Champ
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The highlight reel for Bailey doesn’t run long.
For the first 14 years, that was because quarterbacks didn’t throw his way and there weren’t many plays to make.
For the last four months, it was because he was rarely on the field.
And nowhere among any of it is there a clip of him playing in a Super Bowl.
The Broncos can help him change that Sunday. But if they beat the Patriots and Bailey finally makes it to the big show, he won’t consider himself having filled in the last missing piece of his resume, even if others will.
“I don’t worry about my legacy,” Bailey said. “All those things will take care of themselves.”
Essentially, they already have.
He’s a 3-time, first-team AP All-Pro, a 12-time Pro Bowl pick. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s. Though he’s had fewer opportunities than most, his 52 interceptions are still fourth-most over his 15 years in the league. For all of that, he has earned the lasting respect of his peers and teammates.
There hasn’t been much to watch this year. A lingering foot injury has limited his time in the lineup. Inactive for 11 games, mostly a bit player in the rest, frustrated through all of it.
“My most frustrating, probably because I’m living it right now,” he replied when asked where this season ranks. “The only thing I care about now is I’m back on the field. I’m ready to go. I feel good.”
The timing is good. Bailey is needed as much as ever in the wake of the season-ending knee injury cornerback Chris Harris Jr. suffered last week. It figures to put Bailey in the mix more against New England, whether it be at starting left cornerback, or in the slot where he played last week against the Chargers.
Since he was chosen seventh in the 1999 draft by the Redskins, Bailey has been among that rare group — Ronnie Lott, Darrell Green, Deion Sanders — who quarterbacks simply avoid.
As the years have passed, quarterbacks have tested him more.
Last year, in the playoff game against Baltimore, Bailey got beaten twice for long touchdowns. The offseason talk centered on whether it was time for Bailey to slide gracefully over to the slot, or to safety. Before the injury, Bailey wasn’t ready to go there. Given the way this season has gone and knowing he’s one win away from the Super Bowl, he’s willing to do whatever is needed.
The last time Bailey got this close to the Super Bowl was in the 2005 season. In the divisional playoff game, he intercepted Brady and returned it 100 yards down the sideline. He got chased down a yard short of the touchdown. But it was a game-changing play and the Broncos won. They had home-field the next week and lost to Pittsburgh.
Since then, Bailey and the Broncos have had their chances to part ways. They came closest after the 2010 season when the Broncos’ front office — in transition after the firing of Josh McDaniels — first made an offer, then withdrew it, and Bailey went as far as to put his house on the market.
Once Elway came in to run the personnel department, he didn’t think twice about keeping Bailey in Denver.
Two more wins might make this a perfect closing chapter for Bailey, who, at 35 and now coming off injury, will almost certainly have to accept a new role if he sticks around.
Or almost perfect.
Super Bowl or no, he knows this has not been the sort of season that fits a Hall-of-Famer’s resume.