DENVER -- Resist the urge to declare the New England Patriots lucky to advance to the AFC Championship Game in the first place.
The injuries, the incarceration and the incomplete corps of receivers were red flags that could have signaled their demise, but the team kept winning, kept playing with "house money." It emboldened them to proclaim themselves underdogs and to field flattering comparisons to the plucky 2001 team that won it all.
But now, after a 26-16 drubbing at the hands of the Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos, you can't have it both ways. You can't dismiss this demoralizing loss by saying, "Well, we never should have been here in the first place."
Don't insult Tom Brady and the New England Patriots by plying them with excuses.
And, for that matter, don't insult the Denver Broncos by suggesting their performance was anything other than what it was: dominant, definitive and devastating.
When you get manhandled (to borrow a phrase by a certain competitive football coach) "in every phase of the game," then you have to confront the results like a man.
The Patriots did just that in the wake of a humbling beat down in the AFC title game.
"I thought we played hard, I thought we were ready to go," coach Bill Belichick said. "We just didn't make enough plays, didn't do things quite well enough.
"Denver did better than we did today and that's why they deserve to win and move on."
"They outplayed us," veteran Logan Mankins said in the subdued Patriots locker room. "They were good against the run, good against the pass. They took advantage both ways."
There wasn't a single tick on the ledger that favored New England on this day.
Peyton Manning outplayed his friend and rival Brady -- by a mile.
Denver's defense, which came into the game with question marks firmly affixed to their helmets, refused to allow Brady and the boys a sniff of sustained momentum.
The Patriots' ballyhooed running game that steamrolled Indianapolis a week earlier with 234 yards was held to 64 meaningless yards on Sunday. Brady was limited to 277 yards passing, with many of those (in addition to a late touchdown pass and Brady's rushing TD) coming after the Broncos had all but put the game away with a commanding 23-3 lead.
New England's defense, depleted by an injury to second-team Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib early in the second quarter, was overmatched by a disciplined Broncos attack engineered by Manning, who got rid of the ball so quickly, linebacker Rob Ninkovich said, "It didn't matter whether we pressured him or not. They could not block us, and he was still going to get it out."
Denver converted on seven of its first 10 third-down conversion tries. When your defense allows 70 percent efficiency on such plays, you've got major problems.
"You can't win when you can't get off the field," Ninkovich said. "That's basic fundamental football. They do a good job of keeping the sticks moving with various formations."
Belichick is the coach with the gaudy resume and the reputation as an innovator, yet it was Broncos coach John Fox and his staff who threw some looks at the Patriots that left them guessing. Manning picked at New England's secondary with short throws underneath and a number of crossing routes and pick plays, the latter of which cornerback Alfonzo Dennard admitted he wasn't expecting. "It was kind of shocking," he said. "They executed them very well."
Manning was keenly aware of the narrative that preceded the game. Brady's 18-7 postseason record (including three Super Bowl rings) has afforded him a lifetime pass when it comes to his place in NFL history, but Peyton's own 10-11 playoff mark had the legacy police gunning for him.
Manning responded with a brilliant performance, throwing for 400 yards (on 32-of-43 passing) and two touchdowns. He made every big throw when his team needed it and even audibled a key third-down handoff to Knowshon Moreno to sustain the team's first touchdown drive.
Manning embraced Brady at midfield following the win and was both gracious about and appreciative of his opportunity to play in his third Super Bowl. He lauded the Patriots by noting, "You could rename the AFC championship after the Patriots, they've been here so many times."
When your season ends abruptly, there tends to be one or two plays that haunt you throughout the long and arduous offseason.
In Brady's case, there's no question which one it will be. Denver had just kicked a field goal when Brady spotted Julian Edelman streaking down the left side of the field with the Broncos' Mike Adams a step behind in pursuit. If Brady had hit Edelman in stride, it would have been a touchdown. Instead, Brady overthrew him and the drive stalled into a familar result: a punt.
Just minutes later, Talib collided with Wes Welker on what looked to be an illegal pick. Talib limped off, never to return.
"That was," Belichick said with a grimace, "a key play in the game."
New England never recovered. Twice during key drives, Brady was sacked for huge losses. Meanwhile, Manning was untouched all day.
As we sort through the remnants of the 2013 season, it will certainly be valid to commend New England for soldiering on despite season-ending injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly.
The "next man up" mantra was real, palpable and admirable.
It is also fair to wonder aloud yet again whether New England has given Brady, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the weapons he needs and deserves to win football games.
The disparity was staggering on Sunday. Manning had Eric Decker, Welker, Jacob Tamme and not one but two Thomases to choose from -- Demaryius, who caught seven balls for 134 yards, and Julius, who hauled in eight catches for 85 yards.
You may note one glaring name absent from the list: Danny Amendola (one target, one drop, zero yards). He was supposed to make us all forget about Wes Welker.
Now Welker is headed to the Super Bowl, and the Patriots are headed home to Foxborough, nine years removed from their last championship.
They were a likable, hard-working team, with spirit and character and resiliency.
But that does not change the facts: With or without house money, the Patriots lost to a better football team that, on this day, had the better quarterback as well.