Gronkowski, Patriots' secondary decide Brady-Manning XVI

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Game Balls: Denver at New England

College Contributor Network

Sunday marked the 16th time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have squared off in their Hall of Fame careers. And like nearly 70 percent of their showdowns so far, Brady's Patriots triumphed in a 43-21 beatdown.

What stood out about this iteration of the rivalry was how complementary players decided the final outcome.

Brady and Manning largely cancelled each other out. Each threw an interception (Manning threw two). Brady threw for four touchdowns to Manning's two, but Peyton totaled 100 more yards through the air, and 438 overall. Brady's performance was rated significantly higher (97.4 to 80.9).

That difference can be accounted for in the performances of a couple of key players.

Rob Gronkowski played one of his best games in 2014. He caught nine passes for 105 yards and a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. For the second straight week, Gronkowski caught at least 90 percent of his targets, and he was borderline uncoverable all afternoon.

No play exemplified Gronkowski's dominance better than his fourth quarter touchdown reception. The Patriots lined up in a goal line package at the one, with three tight ends and a fullback in the I-formation. Gronkowski lined up on the far left of the line and, right before the snap, Brady put him in motion.

Gronkowski, now split wide left, drew Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller as his assignment. Brady snapped the ball, Gronkowski took two steps forward, cut inside and Brady hit him in the chest for a wide-open touchdown. Miller could do absolutely nothing to stop it.

Gronkowski has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but when healthy, he is, without question, the best tight end in the league. He might be the most dangerous pass catcher in the league at his peak. As Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz put on Twitter Sunday, "Gronk may be the best TE ever at peak, when-healthy value." He also makes Tom Brady significantly more dangerous as New England's only elite weapon in the passing game.

The Patriots showed off other elite weapons in the passing game Sunday on the defensive side of the ball. Their defensive backfield may have conceded more than 400 yards of passing, but they picked Manning off twice and forced three turnovers on downs in the fourth quarter. They also forced 23 incompletions out of one of the most accurate quarterbacks of all time.

The four-man unit of safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung and cornerbacks Darelle Revis and Brandon Browner shined against the best passing attack in football. Chung, often-viewed as the weak link of the group, was the best of the bunch against the Broncos, recording eight tackles and batting down three passes.

Revis and McCourty were stellar, and while Browner committed a few silly penalties, he made up for it with an interception. Beyond the box score, the New England defensive backs came up with a big deflection or incompletion when they needed one, forcing Manning back to the sidelines far more often than he's used to. The Patriots may have surpassed the Seahawks with the best secondary in football.

By contrast, the Broncos' tight ends and secondary struggled throughout. Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme combined for just three catches and 43 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots forced Manning to rely on Ronnie Hillman and Emmanuel Sanders as his underneath options.

On defense, nickel corner Bradley Roby was the only Broncos' defensive back to deflect or pick off a pass. Brady went to Gronkowski and Julian Edelman at will and mixed Brandon Lafell and Shane Vereen into the passing attack when necessary.

So while the game will go down as Brady-Manning XVI, the game balls should go to Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots' secondary for deciding the matchup of elite quarterbacks and elite teams.

Patrick Leary is a senior at Marquette University. He thinks Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher on God's green earth. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickkleary
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