DENVER — Time and again this season, the Patriots found ways to overcome. They overcame the losses of key players, they overcame double-digit deficits, they overcame monsoon-like rains and bone-chilling temperatures.
But Sunday afternoon, under the bright Rocky Mountain sunshine, they could not overcome the Denver Broncos.
The top-seeded Broncos won the AFC Championship game and will play in Super Bowl XLVIII after dispatching the second-seeded Patriots, 26-16, in a game that wasn’t really as close as the final score indicated.
To a man, the Patriots conceded that Denver simply outplayed them, and it’s hard to argue: the Broncos held the ball for more than 11 minutes longer than the Patriots, converted more than half of their third-down tries, kept quarterback Peyton Manning clean, and stopped the ground game that had carried New England over the last month.
“They played better than we did,” left guard and cocaptain Logan Mankins said. “They were good against the run, good against the pass. They just took advantage of our offense today. We didn’t do a good enough job today, in any aspect.
“[It was] one of those days where they were playing great and we weren’t, and we needed to play very well to match those guys and we just didn’t do it.”
Coach Bill Belichick agreed.
“I thought we played hard, I thought we were ready to go,” Belichick said. "We just didn’t make enough plays, just didn’t do things quite well enough. Denver did better than we did today and that is why they deserve to win and they’ll move on.”
It is the third consecutive year the Patriots made it to the conference title game, and second straight loss, falling to Baltimore last year.
That they advanced to this point is a great accomplishment given the stunning murder investigation and arrest of tight end Aaron Hernandez during the offseason, as well as season-ending injuries to four defensive starters — five if safety Adrian Wilson, hurt at the start of the regular season, is included — and two offensive starters, even after the offense was essentially completely rebuilt.
“I’m definitely proud of this team and what we were able to accomplish this year, with all the adversity that we faced. To even make it to this point says a lot about our football team,” said Matthew Slater. “It was obviously disappointing, but there’s not much we can do about it right now.”
Trailing, 23-3, with 12 minutes left, New England began to show the comeback fight it demonstrated on several occasions this season, when it posted five fourth-quarter comebacks.
But this time there would be no tide-turning play, no key sack or turnover, no special teams miscue by Denver that went the Patriots’ way.
“With everything that we’ve been through this year, until the clock strikes zero, you’re going to keep playing hard and keep believing. And that’s one thing, nobody quit, we kept playing, just came up short,” Slater said.
It was the only time all season the Patriots lost by more than a touchdown, but all five of their losses came on the road.
Just as in their Nov. 24 regular-season game, the Patriots found themselves in a halftime hole against the Broncos, though at 13-3, it was a far more manageable deficit than the 24-point canyon they crawled out of in Week 12.
That they weren’t down by more was a credit to the defense, which made two red-zone stops to force relatively short field goals by Denver.
Being down by 10 when they went into the locker room at the half, when they could have been down by more, gave the Patriots confidence.
“The feeling was, ‘We’re still in it. We’re still in the hunt,’ ” veteran defensive end Andre Carter said. “The game was still up for grabs, but as the game continued, they were able to make plays when they needed to, and we couldn’t get off the field.”
In between those two field-goal drives, however, came the Broncos’ first touchdown. And within that 15-play, 93-yard, seven-minute march came a big loss for the Patriots.
On the third snap of the possession, a pass intended for Demaryius Thomas, Aqib Talib was hurt when he and former Patriot Wes Welker collided on what looked like a questionable pick. Talib, who dealt with a hip injury for much of the regular season, was down on the field for a few minutes, then limped off.
He went back to the locker room, with the Patriots initially announcing that the cornerback had a rib injury. That later was amended to a knee injury.
Talib did not return, and just like in last year’s AFC title game against the Ravens, when Talib’s departure because of his hip was a major blow to the Patriots’ defense, so it was again on Sunday. Without Talib to cover Thomas, the job fell to Alfonzo Dennard, and he simply could not keep up.
Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowler, finished with seven catches for 134 yards and one touchdown.
Upset that there was not a foul called on the play, a livid Belichick shouted at the officials on the field, and afterward called it “a key play in the game. [Talib’s] a key player for us.”
Talib said he would have returned had he been able to. Safety Devin McCourty believed the secondary moved on without the Pro Bowl corner.
“It affects us that he is a guy out there that has played a lot of football for us and he’s gone,” McCourty said. “It affects us that way, but schematically we were able to move on and keep playing.”
Even with Talib, it was a tall task for the Patriots to account for receivers Welker, Thomas, Eric Decker, and tight end Julius Thomas, Manning’s top four targets all season. But without him, it only made things more difficult.
Manning finished 32 for 43 for 400 yards, his first career 400-yard game against Belichick, completing passes to eight receivers. He missed just four of 18 second-half pass attempts.
Losing Talib was a turning point for the defense, but the key moment for the offense was likely on the Patriots’ first possession of the second half.
Trailing, 20-3, after the Broncos opened the quarter with another long touchdown drive, the Patriots went for it on fourth and 3 from the Denver 29 rather than have Stephen Gostkowski, who had a stellar season, attempt a 47-yard field goal.
Tackle Terrance Knighton easily beat Mankins, quickly dropping Brady for a 10-yard loss. Denver took over at its 39 and posted another field goal.
“Got beat,” Mankins said. “It’s one of those things, it happens. You’re going to get beat, no matter who you’re going against. He had a good move, got my hands off him, and got by me. One of those plays you wish didn’t happen, but it did.”
“When you play good teams, the margin of error is pretty slim all day,” said Brady, who was 24 for 38 for 277 yards and a touchdown. “We dug ourselves a pretty big hole. We just couldn’t do enough. They have a good team and made a lot of plays.”
Belichick said work on the 2014 season starts Monday. The players weren’t quite so ready to move on.
“I’m not even thinking about that right now,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “I’m thinking about the fellas in this locker room, the coaches, all the hard work we put into this season.
“It was a pretty special group. Everyone fights to the very end, and it just didn’t go our way. They flat-out beat us today.”