What it means: Season over. The Broncos deserved to win, as the Patriots didn’t bring their A-game. Some losses can be tough to digest when it feels like a game slips away from a team, but this one was different. The Broncos controlled most of the action.
Big-picture view: As time passes, the 2013 campaign will be viewed favorably in terms of the resolve the Patriots showed after significant personnel losses, but that won’t ease the sting that coaches and players will feel after this loss. They missed a great opportunity, and the surprise, from this viewpoint, was that it was the team’s best player, quarterback Tom Brady, whose mistakes hurt most in the AFC Championship Game.
Brady’s deep ball off the mark: Brady will have a long offseason after missing two deep balls in this game -- in the first quarter to Julian Edelman and in the second quarter to Austin Collie -- as there was separation and an open window in which to deliver the football both times. The throw to Edelman, in particular, was a huge play in the game. Brady's struggles with the deep ball were a big storyline Sunday.
Talib injury a game-changer: One of the turning points of the game came in the second quarter on the Broncos’ impressive 15-play, 93-yard touchdown drive that ate up 7:01: Cornerback Aqib Talib was injured when Broncos receiver Wes Welker ran into him over the middle. It sure looked like a penalty on Welker, although there were split opinions among officials-turned-media-members in the Twitter-verse on the play. Without Talib, the Patriots struggled to match up to the Broncos’ passing game. If Brady's struggles with the long ball were storyline 1A, Talib's injury was 1B.
Stock watch: Running game, down -- The ground-and-pound approach that had transformed the Patriots’ offense in the three games leading into this one was essentially extinguished. Some credit goes to the Broncos’ defense for that, as the Patriots' offense was turned into a one-dimensional attack. The defense did its part with some stingy play in the red zone and on third down to win in some key situations, but the offense, similar to losses in the Super Bowl (2007, 2011) and AFC Championship Game (2012), was the unit that didn't hold up its end of the bargain.
What’s next: It’s on to free agency and the NFL draft. Key free agents for the Patriots include Talib, Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots have draft picks in the following rounds: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 6, 7. The fifth-rounder went to Philadelphia in this year’s trade for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga. The extra sixth is from Philadelphia as part of that deal.