DENVER -- Sometimes, you have to be man enough to admit you've been beaten.
More like bulldozed, actually.
All those unspoken fears the New England Patriots harbored about their occasionally porous offensive line became tangible nightmares on Sunday afternoon, when a vicious, relentless and spectacular Denver Broncos defense accomplished with flair the one thing it knew would lead the Broncos to victory: pummeling the daylights out of Tom Brady.
Brady was sacked four times, but that number easily could have been higher had the quarterback not deftly thrown the ball away on multiple occasions just before he got drilled. In all, he absorbed 23 quarterback hits in this game, the most bruising performance he has endured all season, perhaps even in his career.
"Tough day, man,'' Brady conceded afterward. "We could never play with a lead. We never could play on our own terms.''
It's no secret that when Brady is pressured and has no time to throw, the Patriots are in trouble. That's what happens when your team throws the ball 80 percent of the time. There is no Plan B. It's Brady or bust.
The Broncos made sure it was a bust that vaulted Denver into the Super Bowl and left the Patriots just short of a chance to defend their title.
The Denver game plan was bold: rush four passers and drop the other seven defenders into coverage. When Brady did have occasion to look downfield a bit, that sea of bodies made it difficult to see openings for one of his favorite receivers, the normally elusive Julian Edelman. But Edelman had company all day in the form of Chris Harris Jr., and finished with seven quiet catches for 53 yards. As he limped to his locker afterward, Edelman lamented, "We didn't play our best football.''
Denver had a hand in that, both with its pressure on Brady and its outstanding coverage of a fleet of Patriots receivers who were seemingly unstoppable earlier in the season, but were held in check for most of the day until the final, furious minutes.
"All week everybody counted us out,'' Harris Jr. said. "They said I couldn't cover Edelman; they said we couldn't cover their receivers and their tight ends, or whatever. Well, we held them to 18 points.''
The O-line's inability to protect Brady was the overwhelming takeaway of this 20-18 Denver victory, but the sidebar was clearly the shocking moment when the redoubtable Stephen Gostkowski, who had missed only one PAT in his entire career, dating back to Week 17 of his rookie year in 2006, missed right of the goalpost after a 1-yard Steven Jackson touchdown run in the first quarter. Gostkowksi had made 562 of 563 extra points up to that point.
Gostkowski went on to kick two field goals for the Patriots. But when New England was forced to go for two points with 12 seconds left in the game in an attempt to tie it (it failed), the kicker assumed blame for his team's loss.
"It's a nightmare,'' Gostkowski said. "You don't want to be the reason you lose. ... I deserve all the blame I get.''
Members of the offensive line weren't quite as stout in facing their critics as they scurried out of the locker room. Cameron Fleming dressed quickly and avoided questions. An on-the-run Marcus Cannon, who was repeatedly beaten all day, offered a simple, "It was frustrating.''
"It wasn't a good day today, and I'm sure it won't be tomorrow,'' said Sebastian Vollmer, who was playing on a sprained ankle that appeared to limit his effectiveness.
No one on New England's line was any match for the ferocious Von Miller, who set a Denver single-game postseason record with 2.5 sacks. Or Malik Jackson, who was in Brady's grill for most of the day. Or Derek Wolfe, who stalked various Patriots throughout the afternoon. Or DeMarcus Ware, who led the quarterback tackle dummy drill with seven hits. The Patriots were working a silent count in an attempt to negate the raucous Denver crowd, but their problems went far beyond that.
"They were teeing off on our cadence, and we were trying to change it up,'' Brady said. "But on defense, sometimes, you just need one play to stop a drive.''
In the days leading up to this AFC tilt, much of the chatter centered on the quarterback pairing, which at one time was an epic matchup but recently has conjured up nostalgia, not numbers. Brady submitted a season worthy of MVP consideration, but Manning struggled throughout, and there were questions whether he should have been given the starting nod over backup Brock Osweiler.
Yet it was Brady, not Manning, who threw damaging interceptions. It was Manning, not Brady, who connected with his receivers in the end zone to stake his team an early lead. The script seemed to have flipped.
In the second half, Manning's inability to sustain his offense (his team didn't score another touchdown after the second quarter) was the reason New England still had a chance down to the final ticks of the game clock.
Brady's 40-yard bomb to Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-10 with 1:20 left and his desperation fourth-down throw to Gronkowski in the end zone with 10 seconds to play were pulsating last gasps, but it was too little, too late.
Gronkowski, who was the best Patriot on the field (eight catches, 144 yards, 1 TD) couldn't pull off one final miracle by gathering in the two-point conversion attempt. Former Patriot Aqib Talib tipped the pass, adding to Brady's growing sample size of futility in Denver.
It doesn't matter who the opposing quarterback or coach or cornerback is. Brady struggles to win here. He is now 2-7 lifetime in the Mile High City.
Thus, a Patriots team that began the season exhibiting so much dominance now will spend its offseason batting around the what-ifs. What if Dion Lewis had stayed healthy? What if Nate Solder hadn't landed on injured reserve? What if Gostkowski nailed the PAT?
Past Patriots championship teams all had one thing in common: They peaked just as the regular season came to a close. Without exception, those teams were playing their best football as the playoffs commenced.
That simply wasn't true with this group, which absorbed one major injury after another until it cumulatively became insurmountable in late-season losses to Philadelphia, the Jets and Miami. The Dolphins game in particular left a sour taste. Had the Patriots beaten the hapless Fins in their season finale, they would have hosted this AFC title game, and maybe the outcome would have been different.
Give Denver credit for rendering it a moot point. The Broncos were not just the better team on this day, they were the more disciplined one, and the group that seemed to embrace a stronger sense of urgency.
So you can forget about New England's collective fantasy of chortling while NFL commissioner Roger Goodell swallowed hard and presented Brady and Belichick and Kraft with the Lombardi trophy.
The Patriots will be home watching the Super Bowl, wondering how a team that has some of the best offensive weapons in football could be completely taken out of its rhythm.
The play that encapsulated this game came with just under six minutes to play, with New England down 20-12 and opting to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Denver 16. Brady faked the handoff to Jackson, then lobbed the ball over the charging Ware to Edelman. Brady's most trusted receiver gathered the ball, but Harris Jr., who dropped down to help in coverage, corralled Edelman and hauled him down for a 1-yard loss.
Brady, who was knocked to the turf by Ware as the play unfolded, could only sit and watch as his personal redemption tour came to a most disappointing and inauspicious finish, flattened by a conference nemesis which continues its ferocious pursuit of the trophy that will no longer rest on New England's mantel.