FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots' secondary was not built for one game, but it had one of its best performances of the season in the one game they were needed the most.
Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner both played the best games of their Patriots careers against the Denver Broncos, and New England was rewarded with a 43-21 victory thanks in part to their efforts.
The stat sheet will show that Peyton Manning threw for 438 yards. The film will show that the Patriots' cornerbacks abused the Broncos receivers with physicality at the line of scrimmage and at the point of attack with the ball in flight.
"We tried to slow them down as much as we could — within the legal limit," cornerback Kyle Arrington said in the locker room after the game. "Just tried to get hands on them, slow them down, be physical, be aggressive within those five yards."
We've heard this song before, and it's been sung in Manning's direction. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick preaches that his team must disguise coverage and jam receivers when they face Manning, and his secondary delivered on that message on Sunday.
Sure, the aggressiveness didn't always pay off — Browner drew three flags, one for defensive holding and one for pass interference — but when it did, the Broncos' offense was thrown out of synch and Manning's passes were thrown to covered receivers who were often out of position.
"I think that's the key for us each week: We've got to go out there and play physical and if we're playing against a team that's built on being physical, we've got to match it," safety Devin McCourty said. "We've got to play to that. And a team like this that has so many weapons, and their passing game can get going — it can be unders, fades, and just everything — it's big to just throw off the timing and go that way, and I thought those guys up there did a great job of throwing off timing and making it tough on them."
Manning went 16-for-27 in the first half and finished the game 34-for-57. He had a 63.5 passer rating in the first half, and finished with an 80.9 rating for the game.
The aforementioned 438 yards may seem gaudy, but consider that the Patriots gave up 165 yards on six long pass plays in the second half, when the game was well out of reach.
One area of pride for the Patriots' defense has been its success against the long pass. Through the first eight games of the season, they were the only team to not allow a single pass of 40 yards or more against them. That streak came to an end on Sunday, with Manning hitting a 41-yarder to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in the fourth quarter.
It's nearly impossible to shut down Manning for a full 60 minutes, but the Patriots came as close as reasonably possible on Sunday.
"We knew, going into halftime, that you can get Peyton a couple times, but eventually, he's going to get it," McCourty said, "and that offense makes some plays. I think we have a good, experienced group, as far as [putting bad plays behind us.]"
That short-term memory was on full display in the third quarter, when the Patriots allowed an 80-yard drive to be capped off by an 18-yard touchdown catch by Broncos' tight end Julius Thomas over safety Patrick Chung. The next drive, Welker dropped a pass, allowing Browner to make a tip-drill interception and return it to the 10-yard line.
It's all part of the give-and-take in a matchup with Manning, but the Patriots' defense is doing a whole lot more taking than giving lately. In the past five games, the Patriots' defense has forced 10 turnovers, and allowed 276.6 passing yards per game.
That's the elite level of play the Patriots signed up for when they signed the likes of Revis and Browner to contracts this past offseason. And that's the elite level of play the Patriots will have to get from those two — and the rest of the secondary — if and when these two teams meet again in the playoffs.