DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots congratulates Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos after the Broncos defeated the Patriots 26 to 16 during the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 19, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The injuries finally caught up to the Patriots. Unfortunately, the timing couldn't have been worse: Sunday's AFC Championship matchup with the Broncos.
After being without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Gronkowski and Sebastian Vollmer for parts of the season, New England lost their best cornerback, Aqib Talib, in the second quarter to a knee injury. He didn't return, and Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense had little trouble moving the ball -- especially through the air -- and cruised to an easy 26-16 victory.
:"If I could be out there, I would've been out there, man," said Talib afterwards.
But it wasn't just Aqib's absence that proved to be the difference, it was a confluence of events. There was Tom Brady, who missed on several deep passes to would-be wide-open receivers, including Julian Edelman early in the game that would've almost certainly put New England on the board.
"I wish I would have made that,” Brady conceded. “I just overthrew him.”
Instead, the ball fell harmlessly to the ground, and on the next drive the Broncos went up 10-0.
“When you play good teams, the margin for error is slim all day,” the quarterback continued. “We dug ourselves a pretty big hole there. I think this is a resilient, tough team. We just got beat by a team that played really well.”
There was also the lack of a rushing attack a week after LeGarrette Blount ran all over the Colts. He finished with six yards on five carries. By comparison, Brady rushed for seven yards on the day.
"They outplayed us," guard Logan Mankins said. "They were good against the run, good against the pass. They took advantage both ways." Sometimes, those are the breaks. In the past, we've certainly seen them go in New England's favor in the past. This time, though, it was the Broncos' turn. Even Bill Belichick knew it.
"I gotta give Denver a lot of credit today," he said... They did a better job than we did. I thought we were ready to go. But not we didn't do it well enough. Congratulations to them. I'm proud of our team this year."
And now, the Broncos are headed to New York/New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII and the Patriots are headed home. And you could argue that New England, which overcame a lot this season -- maybe more than any other season -- should have been out of the playoff conversation altogether. Instead, in typical Belichick/Brady fashion, they found a way to overcome the setbacks, didn't make excuses and for the third straight years, wound up in the conference championship game. Unfortunately, for the third straight year, there will also be no Super Bowl title.
"Losing is not easy," Brady said. ... "It's a tough loss. But we'll re-group and get back at it next year."
Players say this all the time but we learned a long time ago not to doubt anything that comes out of Brady's mouth. We fully expect the Pats to be back next season, better than they were in 2013.