DENVER - Notice had been sent in recent weeks.
The Patriots’ squad that lost to Denver in October was substantially different from the one that ran onto Invesco Field last night for an AFC divisional playoff game.
Either the Broncos did not get the memo, or they just answered “no” to the question of whether it mattered.
That would be but one “no” of many Patriots followers have to digest along with the team’s first postseason defeat of the century, a 27-13 loss to the Broncos before an orange-happy crowd of 75,579.
No Tom Brady-led comeback. No Adam Vinatieri game-winning kick.
No owner Robert Kraft standing in a sea of confetti atop a podium with the Lombardi Trophy held high.
No parade. No city-wide celebration. No three-peat.
Denver, which won its first playoff game since John Elway and Terrell Davis led it to a Super Bowl victory seven years ago, will face the winner of today’s Pittsburgh-Indianapolis contest next Sunday in the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots, the two-time defending league champions with an NFL-record 10 straight playoff victories, will begin their offseason.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said. “It’s disappointing, very disappointing. The last game is done, and we feel like it’s premature.
“We tried to play like champions.”
New England (11-7), which entered the playoffs having lost two more games this season than they had in the past two years combined, made costly mistakes that were out of character.
Brady throwing interceptions. Vinatieri missing a field goal. Troy Brown muffing a punt.
“We made it easy for them,” said Brady, who threw two interceptions as the Patriots committed five turnovers.
The most stunning was Brady’s first pick, just his fourth in 11 career postseason games. With New England driving to take the lead with a minute to play in the third quarter, his error on third and goal from the 5 was a 14-point mistake.
Trying to slide away from blitzing Broncos safety Nick Ferguson, Brady let go a poor throw toward Brown in the end zone.
It was the wrong throw at the wrong time.
Champ Bailey, whom Brady had said earlier in the week he needed to be wary of, stepped in front of Brown, snared the ball out of the air, and raced toward the opposite end zone.
He ran through one tackle and was off to a 101-yard touchdown before Benjamin Watson came out of nowhere to blast him at the 1. The ball went flying, as Bailey was almost knocked out by the blow after the longest nonscoring interception return in NFL playoff history.
The Patriots’ defenders coming onto the field screamed at coach Bill Belichick to challenge the spot of the ball. The Patriots believed the ball may have been fumbled through the end zone, thus New England would take over at the 20 with a touchback.
The on-field ruling stood, though, and Mike Anderson went in untouched around left end on the next play to give Denver a 17-6 lead.
Belichick felt the call should have been overturned.
“The ball definitely went out of his hands,” Belichick said. “[The officials] reviewed the play, so ask them.”
If Brady’s miscue wasn’t bad enough, two other key members of the Patriots for the past decade made errors.
Vinatieri misfired on a 43-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter. Then after the Patriots held on defense, Brown dropped a punt that Denver recovered at the New England 15. Three plays later, Jake Plummer hit Rod Smith for a 4-yard touchdown and 24-6 lead.
“I just dropped it,” Brown said. “You’re rolling the dice when you do that. You really don’t have a chance when you have two special teams turnovers.”
The Patriots gave Denver 10 points near the end of the first half on fumbles one by Kevin Faulk that set up a touchdown, and another by Ellis Hobbs on a kickoff return that resulted in a field goal and a 10-3 Broncos lead at the break.
Faulk’s fumble might not have been so painful were it not for a questionable pass interference penalty on the next play. Asante Samuel got caught in a hands-on battle with Ashley Lelie down the left sideline. It appeared harmless, particularly since Lelie initiated the contact, but a few seconds after the play, a flag came flying. Samuel practically celebrated assuming the call was against Lelie. He was wrong.
The infraction netted 39 yards for Denver, putting the ball on the 1, where Anderson barreled his way into the end zone to give Denver its first lead.
Hobbs lost the handle on the ensuing kickoff, and four plays later Jason Elam tacked on a 50-yard field goal.
Even when trailing, 24-6, there remained fight in the defending champions. They scored in less than a minute, with Brady hitting Deion Branch for a 73-yard gain, and connecting with David Givens from the 4 for a touchdown with 8:05 left.
“We’re always going to fight,” linebacker Willie McGinest said. “There are a bunch of competitors in this locker room. We just didn’t bounce back.
“The playoffs you have to play almost perfect football, and we didn’t do that.”
The Patriots gained 420 yards with Brady (20 of 36) throwing for 341 yards to Denver’s 286, but the season-high five turnovers were too much to overcome.
“It’s hard to win when you give the ball away,” Belichick said.
“We beat ourselves,” Branch said.
Denver marched to another Elam field goal (34 yards) to extend the lead to two touchdowns with 3:20 left.
Any hope of a miracle comeback died with Brady’s second interception, grabbed by safety John Lynch. Soon after, Plummer took a knee three consecutive times to end the Patriots’ quest for a third consecutive title.
“We didn’t talk about winning three in a row, we talked about winning one game at a time,” Brown said. “It’s a tough situation, and it gets tougher when you look at the opportunities we let slip by.
“That makes it even worse.”