DENVER -- In a game that played out similarly to some of their most painful playoff defeats, the New England Patriots still had a chance to tie on a two-point conversion with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The way the play unfolded reflected why the Patriots had such a struggle.
Quarterback Tom Brady was under duress, couldn’t survey all his options, and he fired a pass across the middle that was intercepted. After the Denver Broncos recovered an onside kick, the result was sealed -- a 20-18 Patriots loss.
The key stat in the game: Brady was hit 23 times, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information tracking.
That made the game similar to Super XLII, one of the most crushing losses in franchise history, a 17-14 loss to the New York Giants when the Patriots’ perfect season came up just short.
The Patriots’ offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage that day, and the same was true against the Broncos on Sunday. Some credit, of course, should go to a ferocious Broncos defense led by outside linebacker/defensive end Von Miller. That unit was outstanding, helping efficient quarterback Peyton Manning outduel Brady in the 17th career meeting between them.
In one respect, that the Patriots were still in the game late in the fourth quarter was a testament to their mental toughness, because this wasn’t their best performance. At the same time, this is a bitter disappointment for them, as they were favored and had entered the game as healthy as they could have hoped for with some of their top players.
What it means: Any season that falls short of a Super Bowl in New England is a disappointment. That’s how high the bar has been raised. Another Super Bowl appearance was there for the taking, but the Patriots didn’t play as well as they could have. The Broncos played better.
Game ball: On a day that Rob Gronkowski clearly wasn’t 100 percent, he made eight catches for 144 yards receiving. It was a gutsy performance from the All-Pro, whose touchdown catch with 12 seconds remaining on fourth-and-goal was one of the most clutch plays of his career.
Gronkowski played through cramps: Gronkowski, who usually plays every snap, was limited at times in the second half as he took himself off the field for a five-play stretch and later a two-play stretch. Gronkowski appeared to be dealing with cramps, as his legs were being worked on by the athletic training staff. He also was shown taking oxygen at one point.
Freeny’s effort and replay challenge were critical: Linebacker Jonathan Freeny's awareness to scoop up a loose football late in the first quarter that was initially ruled an incomplete pass but was later overturned on replay to a backward pass helped set up the Patriots’ first touchdown. That type of heads-up play was one of the highlights on a day when the Patriots didn’t play their best. Bill Belichick, football research director Ernie Adams and company made the right call to challenge.
From the miscellaneous file: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point since Week 17 of the 2006 season, when he was a rookie. The extra point turned out to be a critical play, based on the way the game unfolded. Brady set the NFL record for most postseason appearances, with 31. The Patriots won the opening toss and, in a surprise move, elected to receive. The team usually defers its choice to the second half. CBS reported during the game that the Patriots had issues with their computer tablets for a stretch in the first half. Brady drops to 6-9 lifetime against the Broncos (including playoffs), the only team against which he has a losing record. There were 77,112 tickets distributed and 77,067 tickets used.
What's next: The Patriots will have their exit meeting early Monday and then depart for the offseason. With the Pro Bowl next weekend, one question will be how many of the Patriots’ seven selections attend: Brady, cornerback Malcolm Butler, linebacker Jamie Collins, kicker Gostkowski, tight end Gronkowski, defensive end Chandler Jones and wide receiver Matthew Slater.