When the dust settled after that frantic ending and the failed two-point conversion in Denver on Sunday afternoon, there were a couple of unwanted architects to thank. While Peyton Manning basked in the limelight and clung desperately onto the game ball after winning what was likely his final duel with Tom Brady, the stars of Denver's upset victory giddily sprinted around elsewhere. It was Owen Daniels, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware who sprung the upset, and behind them were a pair of coaches who were two years removed from being unwanted and unemployed. On Sunday, the combination of Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips didn't just beat the brightest coach of this generation, Bill Belichick. They actually even outcoached him.
On Jan. 24, 2014, both Kubiak and Phillips were unemployed, each fired by the worst team in football, the 2-14 Houston Texans. Houston had collapsed in dramatic fashion after a 12-4 season in 2012. Kubiak was fired with three games left to go in the season with a 61-64 record over eight years; after losing the final three games of the year as interim coach, Phillips followed his former boss out the door.
There was plenty of evidence that the issues with the Texans were temporary and fixable, but the damage had been done. Nobody argued against Houston's decisions, even if Kubiak had won consecutive division titles before that dismal final year. Phillips' run as defensive coordinator had been even more impressive; he took over a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA before his arrival and led them to sixth- (2011), fourth- (2012), and 18th-placed (2013) finishes in those same rankings before he got the boot.
Three days later, Kubiak was hired by the Ravens to be their offensive coordinator, a move that inspired some snickering. Kubiak's offensive scheme was thought to be vanilla and tired, with an emphasis on a simplistic zone-blocking scheme giving way to slow-developing play-action passes. The Lions passed on him as a head-coaching candidate, with the Browns and Dolphins reportedly expressing some interest in Kubiak as an offensive coordinator before turning elsewhere. Only after a year rebuilding his value in Baltimore did Kubiak land his next head-coaching job, and even that was seen as some semblance of professional nepotism, given that he was hired by the quarterback for whom he once served as a backup, John Elway.
Phillips had it even worse.
After being fired by the Texans, the 67-year-old spent 2014 out of football without even being given even one interview opportunity as a defensive coordinator. A whopping 21 teams had changed defensive coordinators since Phillips was let go by the Texans. One of those teams was Washington, which granted Phillips his first interview this past offseason and promptly chose Joe Barry. (They finished 21st in defensive DVOA this year.) Once Kubiak caught on with the Broncos, he gave Phillips his second -- and final -- interview.
The Broncos promptly led the league in defensive DVOA by a comfortable margin, with the second-place Panthers closer to sixth than they were to first. And on Sunday, Phillips' aggressiveness and ability to reimagine his tactics -- even at 68 -- were what pushed Denver into the Super Bowl. Here's how.
Rattled by the rush
Phillips' defense teed off on Tom Brady on Sunday in staggering, virtually unprecedented fashion. Hits can be an arbitrary measure, but according to the NFL's official data, Brady was knocked down 20 times Sunday, more than any quarterback had been hit in a single game all season. Think about that. For comparison, Brady was hit just 18 times during the entire 2014 postseason, and just once during the 27-20 divisional-round win over the Chiefs.
What's even more remarkable about the effort, at least from Phillips' perspective, is how the Broncos got there. On Friday, I wrote about how the Broncos needed to try to get pressure without blitzing, a move which would go against Phillips' blitz-happy persona, given that the Broncos blitzed more than all but three teams this year. During the regular season, the Broncos blitzed a whopping 41.7 percent of the time.
On Sunday, Phillips put the blitz packages away, and it flummoxed the Pats. The Broncos blitzed on just 16.4 percent of Brady's dropbacks. That's a lower blitz rate than any Phillips-led defense has attempted in more than eight years, dating back to Week 9 of the 2007 season, when Phillips was in his first year as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. After rushing three men just 30 times all season, Phillips sent a mere three-man rush on 14 dropbacks versus Brady on Sunday, with the star Patriots quarterback going 4-of-13 for 41 yards with a sack, an interception and a passer rating of just 9.5.
Altogether, the Broncos were able to pressure Brady on 31.1 percent of his dropbacks. That's the highest pressure rate on Brady in the playoffs since Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants upset the Patriots with a similarly blitz-averse scheme and pressured Brady on 33.3 percent of his passing plays. And even they managed to hit Brady only nine times across his 53 dropbacks during that game. The Broncos got Brady 20 times in 60 dropbacks yesterday afternoon.
Phillips drew up a number of exotic looks to try to create mismatches and confusion among the Patriots' offensive line. He was able to do this -- at least in part -- because the Broncos simply didn't fear that the Patriots were ever going to be able to run the football. Denver kept just five men in the box on 30 offensive snaps Sunday. During a typical regular-season game, they would only employ that tactic in obvious passing situations, employing five men in the box less than 10 times per contest. He was right: The Patriots had one Brady scramble go for 11 yards, but their 14 carries from their running backs -- James White, Brandon Bolden and Steven Jackson -- generated a mere 31 rushing yards.
One favorite Phillips repeatedly went back to during the game saw the Broncos line up with down linemen split impossibly wide, with defensive tackles on the outside shoulder of each Patriots guard and one linebacker -- occasionally Miller -- lined up directly over the center. That forced New England's linemen to fan outward at the snap, giving Miller a clearer path to wreak havoc on the interior. Other times, it would be Brandon Marshall in the same spot, with the Denver inside linebacker then dropping back into coverage.
All the exotic looks in the world don't mean much if you can't win one-on-one to create pressure, though, and that's where Miller and Ware came in. While Phillips did occasionally move them -- almost always Miller -- around to other sides of the formation, he was really just content to let them line up on the edge versus New England's tackle combination of Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, who switched sides throughout the game, as is customary for the Patriots.
Neither side worked. Cannon was badly beaten early on by Miller before Ware took over in the fourth quarter, repeatedly getting around a clearly limited Vollmer. Ware and Miller were so quick around the edge that it seemed as if they had Brady's snap count timed. Ware, in particular, was getting consistently excellent jumps at the snap during the fourth quarter. Things also weren't safe on the interior, where guard Josh Kline was handed his lunch by the combination of Derek Wolfe and (in particular) Malik Jackson, who had a quietly mammoth game. And the Patriots struggled to deal with Denver's twists and stunts, which came up on the second Brady interception.
Watch the play at the line and you see Ware (94) deliberately direct his rush to the interior while Jackson (97) initially bowls forward before shedding Kline as he heads around Ware's vacated rush lane. Jackson nails Brady as he's about to throw, and with Brady staring down that side of the field the entire way, the result is an easy pick for safety Darian Stewart.
While Phillips didn't crowd the line of scrimmage, he did pull his safeties -- Stewart and T.J. Ward, at least at first -- closer toward the line in the hopes of crowding Brady's throwing lanes, doubling Rob Gronkowski, and taking away the endless shallow crosses and option routes Brady hits when the Patriots' offense is clicking. Phillips dared Brady and the Patriots to beat his defense deep, and for the vast majority of the game, they weren't able to do so.
Really, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels weren't able to come up with a solution that forced Phillips to change his style. They went with an empty backfield, and while that occasionally created open receivers, it also got Brady killed. The Patriots simply didn't give their overmatched tackles much help, and when they did bring in Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive lineman in the shadow of their end zone, it ended with Miller torching him in terrifying fashion for a sack and a near-safety.
Belichick and McDaniels did eventually find a familiar route of attack, but they lacked the personnel to properly execute it. Similar to the case in the second half of last year's Super Bowl, they tried to throw to their pass-catching running backs as almost a primary weapon in the passing game, with Brady trying to take advantage of inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Marshall. It didn't work quite as well as the Patriots would have hoped, with an early completion to Bolden setting up New England's first touchdown before a series of passes to White late produced painfully close incompletions. (It's hard to not see those throws as a Patriots fan and wonder if they would have been catches with Shane Vereen or Dion Lewis in at running back.)
The one personnel mismatch the Patriots did have, of course, was Gronkowski. He was magnificent, albeit while missing assorted snaps throughout the game while struggling with dehydration and cramps. He was able to beat Trevathan in the third quarter for a long catch and run, and as Denver lost both its starting safeties to injuries, Gronkowski began to become uncoverable.
He beat Trevathan up the seam for another big gain, and on the fourth-and-10 play that extended the Patriots' season, Gronk ran past double coverage for 40 yards. It looked like the Broncos had Harris assigned in coverage with backup safety Josh Bush lined up at the sticks to try to take away any sort of inside cut from Gronkowski, but the star tight end simply outran Harris and Bush wasn't able to provide any sort of deep support.
Four plays later, with Ware living in the New England backfield, Gronk simply out-jumped double coverage for a touchdown. Hell, he was even open on the game-deciding two-point play, with the Broncos seemingly choosing to leave him one-on-one against backup safety Shiloh Keo. Miller had the game of his life and Ware had a staggering seven knockdowns of Brady, but Gronk was the only other player on the field on their level Sunday.
At home with Owen
As dominant as Gronkowski was, though, the more impactful tight end in the game might very well have been the afterthought on the other side of the field. As aggressive as Phillips was about shifting his defense to account for his team's relative strengths and New England's weaknesses, there was something refreshingly ho-hum about Kubiak succeeding by throwing passes to Daniels. Daniels, of course, has spent his entire career with Kubiak, with Denver now being their third stop together. Daniels was Kubiak's first skill-position selection in his first draft with the Texans, in 2006. He has spent 10 years winding his way through trash out to the backside of plays on Kubiak's play-action passes. Nobody -- not even Matt Schaub -- is more Kubiak than Daniels.
And so it was fitting, then, that Daniels was the guy who did more to push Kubiak into his first Super Bowl as a head coach. All he did was beat one of the most dynamic linebackers in football for touchdowns twice in one half. Jamie Collins wasn't 100 percent heading into the game, and he came up with a pair of sacks along with his typically excellent run defense in the second half, but Collins was left wanting on both of Denver's touchdowns. No less of a Patriots authority than former star linebacker Willie McGinest noted that Collins was getting caught peering into the backfield, and it cost the Patriots twice.
The first touchdown came on what appeared to be a blown coverage. It looks like the Patriots are in Cover 2 here, which would leave Collins responsible for Daniels' route up the seam. Collins takes a false step when Daniels fakes like he's cutting across the formation before heading up the seam, and because Collins continues to try to read Manning, he tries to pass Daniels' seam route up to the safeties instead of sinking with the tight end in coverage. The result is an easy pitch and catch between Manning and Daniels.
The second score was more obviously Collins' fault. The Broncos lined up Daniels as a wide receiver and managed to get him matched up one-on-one with Collins. That's not an athletic mismatch for Collins, but again, he gets lost on the route and turns back to the quarterback as it seems like Daniels is going to try to work his way toward the middle of the field. At that exact moment, Daniels bursts down field, Manning makes a perfect throw and Collins isn't able to react quickly enough. The Broncos needed to take advantage of the red zone opportunities they had in this game, and against a defense that has quietly been below average inside its own 20 this year, Denver was efficient and effective.
Humor me and expand the red zone out by a single yard, and you'll note that the Broncos came away with two touchdowns and a field goal on their three trips inside the red zone. It really should have been three touchdowns, actually, but Manning struggled with his accuracy. He missed touchdowns twice before the second Daniels TD, and in the fourth quarter he missed an open Jordan Norwood in the end zone for what would have given the Broncos a two-touchdown lead with 10 minutes to go. That left the game at 20-12 and forced the Broncos to come up with two fourth-down stops and a stuff on the two-point conversion to hold onto their lead.
It would be fair to say Manning had an uneven day. He took a number of huge sacks that basically ended Denver drives. The future Hall of Famer didn't throw an interception for the second consecutive week, but he was partly responsible for Denver's turnover when a swing pass to Ronnie Hillman traveled backward, fell incomplete and was recovered by the Patriots. Manning's biggest play of the day was a 34-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders on a deep pass that was underthrown and required an incredible effort from his wideout. He has managed to shut off the interception spigot from the regular season, but now, Manning will face the defense that ended a league-high 12.4 percent of opposing possessions with an interception this year, a Panthers team that has six interceptions and two pick-sixes already this postseason. It seems like a frightfully bad matchup for the Broncos.
And yet, Sunday should prove to us that it would be naive to count out the Broncos and their veterans. They weren't supposed to have a chance at home in the AFC Championship Game despite possessing the league's top defense, and the best unit on paper proceeded to have the best day on the field. Kubiak's offense probably isn't going to overpower the Carolina defense, but he's got two weeks to find mismatches for a limited Manning to exploit, likely cornerbacks Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan. If the Panthers are without star linebacker Thomas Davis, who broke his arm in Sunday's blowout win, that would help Kubiak's case.
Even more so, it's going to be a fun two weeks for Phillips. His defense would have matched up better against Arizona, given how deep Denver goes at cornerback and how effective its pass-rushers might have been against Arizona's offensive line. Now, he gets an entirely different challenge. Miller and Ware are hardly one-dimensional pass-rushers; Miller, in particular, has the range and athleticism to do whatever Phillips wants him to do on the field.
So, how does Phillips use his stars? Does he try to use Miller to defend against dominant tight end Greg Olsen? Does he spy Newton? Or does he keep Miller and Ware outside, hoping that they're athletic enough to set the edge against the zone-read and funnel all of Jonathan Stewart's carries inside, where Wolfe, Jackson and Vance Walker will be among those waiting? The defensive game plan Phillips employed to beat the Patriots will look nothing like the one he throws out against the Panthers. But Sunday should be a reminder that the guy who is very arguably the league's best defensive coordinator should be able to come up with a solution in two weeks. Not bad for a guy who couldn't get an interview last year.