AFTER a season full of defeat-defying victories, sometimes-illogical success and oft-remarkable resilience, Patriots fans were hoping for another example of their team’s indefatigability.
Neither the incarceration of one star, nor the injuries to several others, nor the inconsistency of their own play had denied them a chance to play for the AFC championship — just one more of irrepressible instance of getting back to the Super Bowl.
But instead, what most of New England would’ve likely acknowledged leading up to the game — and, really, what made a 12-4 record, a first-round bye and a divisional beatdown of the Colts so surprising — proved true.
The Broncos were simply better, over the course of the season, and over 60 convincing minutes of Sunday, when Denver left little doubt about which club most deserved to represent the conference in the forthcoming Super Bowl XLVIII. They controlled play from start to finish and ultimately claiming the Lamar Hunt Trophy with a 26-16 triumph at Sports Authority Field.
“We fought hard, we just came up short against a pretty good team,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. “I think this team was a very tough, resilient, hard-nosed football team. We’ve got a good team — we just didn’t play well enough today.”
Peyton Manning was terrific, and with 400 yards passing he got the better of Brady in the battle of all-time quarterbacks, but as impressive as anything from the Denver perspective was the way the Broncos further distanced themselves from the idea that they’re a squad solely dependent on the high-octane offense keyed by their superstar signal caller — and nowhere was their two-way talent more evident than in the third-down situations that set the tone of the contest early.
Second-best in the league this season in those scenarios, Manning’s offense was excellent in keeping drives alive Sunday. But less foreseen was the ability of the Denver defense to keep Brady’s bunch from doing the same.
The Patriots opened with consecutive three-and-outs, and converted only one of their five attempts in the first half. The obvious drawback of those struggles was that New England had the ball for less than 18 of the game’s first 48 minutes, but it also limited their options and effectiveness when they did have possession.
They were never able to get in a rhythm, and thus were never able to assert the running game that had been such a force in recent weeks. After gaining 234 yards against Indianapolis, the Patriots rushed for 64 yards on just 16 carries — LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley touching the ball just five times apiece — and their undermanned receiving corps didn’t have the firepower to carry the load alone.
“We didn’t do much of anything early in the game — run it or pass it,” Brady said. “We didn’t complete the third downs, so it was hard to really get into the running game, with two three-and-outs to start the game. It’s hard to be productive when you’re not making third downs.”
And so, instead, Brady’s team fell in a frustratingly familiar fashion. In the six postseason losses he’s incurred since falling to Manning and the Colts in January of 2007, the Pats have only once scored more than 20 points — and that came when they tacked on a touchdown with 30 seconds to go in losing 28-21 to the Jets.
One of the NFL’s elite offenses in all but one of those seasons, they’ve averaged just 15.8 points during the games when they’ve been eliminated. And in a situation like Sunday, that’s simply not good enough.
The Patriots did manage to hold the Broncos’ offense almost 12 points below their league-record regular-season average of 37.9 points per game, surrendering just two short touchdown passes and four field goals.
But, again, Denver dominated play on third down. Aided by a knee injury that forced Patriots top cover man Aqib Talib out of the game early in the second quarter, the Broncos converted seven of their first 10 opportunities, and two of the misses immediately preceded Matt Prater field goals, meaning they’d already made their march down the field. New England’s fourth stop came early in the fourth quarter, but that one led to points, too, those making it 23-3 — and all but sealing the result.
“We were able to hold them some field goals, but our third-down defense, and our third-down offense — especially in the first half — we let them get too far ahead,” said Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. “They were able to stay on the field, had the ball, had field position. A couple times we held them to field goals, we still didn’t have possession of the ball, didn’t have a chance to do much.
“We were just trying to keep them out of the end zone, and that’s OK, but it’d be a lot better if we were able to stop them on third down and get the ball back.”
New England never got closer than 10 points in the second half, so a team that since December 2006 has lost just three regular-season Brady starts by more than one score, has now lost three of its last nine playoff games by 10 points or more.
Had they struck for the two-point conversion after Brady ran for a touchdown in the final minutes, and closed within eight, maybe they would’ve had one more magical finish to add to those achieved against the Saints, the Browns, and these Broncos back in November. But Shane Vereen’s inside run failed, so a team with no shortage of fight never got to throw one last punch.
“I thought we played hard, thought we were ready to go — we just didn’t make enough plays,” Belichick said. “I’m proud of the team. Proud to be their coach. Thought they played hard all year. They played competitively every single week; some weeks we played better than others, but there was never a lack of effort, or toughness, or everybody trying to do their best — and I totally respect the team for that.
“They were better than we were today.”
They were all season, really. And now that it’s over, there’s no shame in New England admitting that.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.