Overmatched Patriots fall to Broncos in AFC Championship Game

Tom Brady and the Patriots struggled to find any kind of rhythm in their 26-16 loss to the Broncos.
David E. Klutho/SI

DENVER -- The end sounds like shower water echoing against a tile floor in a lifeless locker room.

It sounds like Velcro tugged, as name tag after name tag comes down from the Patriots' cubbies.

The end is silence, the long pauses between Patriots coach Bill Belichick's answers. On any other team, with any other coach, the dead air would mean the press conference was over, but not on Sunday, not with the Patriots. The pauses were just the moments when the unasked questions lingered in the air, when writers wondered whether it was even worth it to ask, whether it was even possible to reflect.

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Sunday's 26-16 Broncos win was the perfect game for Belichick's style of terse. He's fondest of the shortest answers, the fewest words, and after the AFC Championship, the Patriots' season-ending loss was best served dry and quick.

"I wish we could have done a little better job today," the coach intoned in his special brand of flat, and he was right. He was right, except to beat these Broncos, with their roster stocked up and down with superior players, his depleted Patriots would have had to be perfect.

Instead, New England's defense broke down, allowing Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to throw for 400 yards and Denver's running backs to rush for 108. Instead, the Patriots' own running backs, who had carried them thus far in the playoffs, racked up just 57 total yards on the afternoon, and Brady's passing game was missing a certain something. Add in cornerback Aqib Talib's knee injury, and the game looked like a lost cause by halftime.

There were hints of that crazy Belichick magic, though, or at least moments in which it threatened to materialize. This is the same coach who chose to take a roaring, frigid wind in overtime against the Broncos two months ago -- and who won because of it. This is a team whose season was punctuated with miracle wins, and the thought that Sunday might turn into another lingered late into the fourth quarter.

With seven minutes remaining in the game and the Patriots down by 16, Brady scrambled into the end zone for a touchdown.

The deficit was 10.

Belichick, as expected, elected to go for the two-point conversion.

Denver held its breath, and Denver's defense held its own, with Shane Vereen falling short of the end zone. The Patriots still tried an onside kick, which the Broncos recovered, and that was it. The magic was up. Denver was, put simply, the better team.

Sunday's was a game best described in absolutes, at least for the Patriots. It was the rare moment when the most cliché of answers rang true. The Broncos were the superior team. They did outplay the Patriots in every phase of the game. There was no getting around it.

"We didn't do much of anything, really, in the game," Brady said, and despite his 277 passing yards, he was right.

The numbers don't matter, not anymore. Neither do the positives, including the fact that Belichick put up a convincing bid for Coach of the Year after leading his depleted team this far. Or that Brady put together a season in which he beat Manning head-to-head in the regular season with a jaw-dropping comeback and somehow finished with one of the best offenses in the NFL.

"Unfortunately, we've been here before," Belichick said. "We've won AFC Championship Games, and we've lost them. We'll move on. We have to."

Not a half hour after leaving the sidelines, the coach was already talking offseason, already bemoaning the fact that 28 of the 32 teams had gotten a head start over his. Being second-best in the AFC doesn't matter, nor does being an onside kick and a hearty dose of luck away from the Super Bowl. A 12-4 regular-season record might as well have been 4-12 by Sunday night, and in the Patriots' locker room, the moments of reflection were few. Safety Devin McCourty was hesitant even to mention the word pride. "I don't know," he said when asked how he felt of his team's accomplishments. "We'll see, maybe, in a week or two."

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In a week or two, it may sting less. It might be possible then to see the season, not just the end. The numbers might matter, along with the obstacles the Patriots overcame.

In a week or two, the Broncos will still be playing, though, and the Patriots will still be finished, and on Sunday, that's what mattered.

"We just have to come to terms with the fact that it was a good run," running back LeGarrette Blount said.

And it was.

"But it's over."

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