Picked-up pieces from the first quarter of the New England Patriots' 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game:
1. The Patriots' slow start on offense can be tied directly to the running game. After solid plays on first down on their first two drives -- 5-yard pass to Julian Edelman and 6-yard pass to Matthew Mulligan -- they were followed with runs of 0 and 1 yard by LeGarrette Blount. It looked like some early struggles from center Ryan Wendell that contributed to the lack of positive momentum. On the 1-yard run, for example, Wendell lunged at defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who was a bear to handle all day as he broke into the backfield to blow things up. On the run for no gain, it looked like Wendell was trying to get to the second level to possibly block linebacker Paris Lenon, but Lenon shot the gap so fast he made the easy tackle.
2. Patriots running plays in the first quarter -- 0, 1, 5, 0. That will test the patience and commitment of many coordinators.
3. It's easy to say after the fact, but was curious about Tom Brady's decision to go for the long bomb to Matthew Slater up the right sideline on third-and-3 on the second drive (8:05 remaining). While the matchup might have led him there -- Slater 1-on-1 against cornerback Tony Carter -- it looked like a higher-percentage option was Danny Amendola underneath on a crossing route. At the same time, credit to Carter for making the play. The Broncos were making them all over early in the game as their defense opened with great energy.
4. One of the first signs that it wasn't the Patriots' day came on the Broncos' first third-down conversion (2 yards to go, 12:14 remaining). After his patented “Omaha!” call, quarterback Peyton Manning bobbled the shotgun snap, the Patriots committed six to the pass rush after end Rob Ninkovich had an initial jam on tight end Julius Thomas, and they still couldn't get there. While defensive backs struggled for stretches of the game, that was one play (7-yard catch by Eric Decker) where the onus fell on the rush to be more disruptive based on the resources devoted to it.
5. Strong play by defensive end Chandler Jones against the run on the Broncos' first drive -- a tackle on a 3-yard run by Knowshon Moreno in which he crashed down the line (12:53 remaining), and then locking up tight end Virgil Green and rocking him back to set a hard edge that allowed linebacker Dont'a Hightower to fill on a 5-yard loss (10:16 remaining).
6. Jones played a strong initial quarter, crashing down in the running game on a Montee Ball carry for no gain (6:31 remaining, Jamie Collins credited with the tackle as he looped around Jones) before reaching out and disrupting Peyton Manning on a third-and-goal throw into the end zone from the 9-yard line. While many will focus solely on Jones' pass-rush, the power with which he played the run was notable early on. Elsewhere, it looked like safety Devin McCourty got away with a holding penalty on the first-down play of that red-zone sequence.
7. On Tom Brady's overthrow of Julian Edelman (3:06 remaining) on a 40-45-yard bomb, it was a beautiful play design, with the play-action working to perfection. I wonder if Brady just rushed his mechanics slightly as the breakdown might have come with his footwork after re-setting following play-action.
8. If officials are going to call tight end Michael Hoomanawanui for offensive pass interference (:56 seconds remaining) on a pick-type action, the call on Wes Welker should also be made from a consistency standpoint. Hoomanawanui's action, on a similar right-to-left crossing route, came around the same time the ball was delivered to receiver Austin Collie. It was very similar to the play in which Welker picked Aqib Talib in the second quarter. The difference between Hoomanawanui's action and Welker's was that Hoomanwanui was in much more control and running at a slower rate of speed. So it's one thing to say both teams were running "picks" or "rubs", but when factoring in the rate of speed, they truly aren't carbon copies of each other.
9. It's unlikely the third-and-20 screen to receiver Julian Edelman (38 seconds remaining) would have picked up the necessary first down, but the Patriots seemed to be hoping for about 7-10 yards to set up a long field goal. But right tackle Marcus Cannon couldn't cut cornerback Champ Bailey and Edelman was dropped after 4 yards. That's a tough block to execute, and the Broncos had other pursuit on the play, but it was another play that reflected how the Patriots' line play in the run/short-pass game struggled early.