DENVER — So there. In the end, it was about talent and merit, instead of myth and legacy. It turns out that an appearance in the Super Bowl is not an entitlement.
In the end, the overachieving, house-of-cards Patriots were simply not good enough to go to the Meadowlands for Super Bowl XLVIII. Not even close. The amazing part is that a lot of folks actually believed this team was going back to the big game.
Livin’ on a Prayer. Indeed.
Finally standing up for themselves in the big moment, the Denver Broncos thoroughly dominated the Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game. The final score was a mere 26-16, but we all know the truth. This was a brutal beatdown in every phase of the game, a particularly ugly scrum that failed to live up to its immense hype.
Let’s acknowledge up front that this was a terrific Patriots season. Despite wholesale attrition and an obvious dearth of great players, the Patriots managed to win 13 games and advance to the NFL’s final four. They got themselves to within 60 minutes of an eighth trip to the Super Bowl. They engineered many dramatic comebacks. They were the embodiment of Team Above Self, Next Man Up, and all those other slogans that fit on the wall of every high school locker room in the nation.
Swell. But Sunday’s annihilation at Mile High was merely the latest demonstration that the Super Bowl championship days are long gone in Foxborough. In the Andy Warhol Division, which features starting quarterbacks Thad Lewis, Geno Smith, and Ryan Tannehill, the Patriots can continue to qualify for the playoffs with the first-round bye and the second-round home game. They can do things that folks in Cleveland and Detroit (one playoff victory since 1957) can only dream about.
But they are not good enough to win championships. When you have a roster of smurf wideouts, young defenders, undrafted free agents, and guys cut loose by other teams, eventually you come up against somebody with better players, somebody who is not going to wet his pants at the sight of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. It happens every year. Sometimes earlier than others.
Four years ago, it was Ray Rice and John Harbaugh (Ravens, 33-14). Three years ago, it was Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez (Jets, 28-21) in Foxborough. Two years ago, it was Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning (Giants, 21-17) in the Super Bowl. Last year, it was those dastardly Ravens again (28-13).
On Sunday, it was Peyton Manning and John Fox.
Fox did what he needed to do at the start of the slaughter. He made the Patriots take the ball. He served notice that he’s been paying attention and New England was going to do something it did not want to do. He blocked Belichick’s double-score strategy and took it all for himself.
Manning did the rest. He too often settled for 3 points when he could have had 7, but he carved up Belichick’s smoke-and-mirrors defense for 400 passing yards. He completed 32 of 43 throws. Two touchdowns. No interceptions. He passed every test on a day when Patriots fans were waiting for him to choke. He still needs to win a second Super Bowl to cement his legacy, but he smothered the demons of Belichick Past. He’s now 2-2 against Belichick and Brady in the playoffs. He’s beaten them in two consecutive AFC Championship game meetings. He hasn’t lost to the Patriots in the playoffs since January 2005. We’re going to have to put “Bill is in Peyton’s head” to rest.
Golden Child Brady is another matter. We all love Tom, but he was pretty dreadful Sunday. He badly overthrew Julian Edelman on a certain touchdown pass at the end of the first quarter. He lacked legitimate NFL targets (where’s Reche Caldwell when you need him?), but didn’t get his team into the end zone until the sixth minute of the final quarter. When it was 23-3.
“I wish I could have done more to help us,’’ Brady said, wistfully.
Brady’s now 2-4 at Mile High. He has lost six of his last 10 playoff games. Since the 10-0 start, he’s 8-8 in the playoffs.
Oh, and remember LaGarrette Blount? Sports Illustrated cover guy? The new Earl Campbell? The man who ran for 189 yards, then 166 yards in the Patriots’ last two games? Perhaps Blount’s success — like the success of the 2013 Patriots — was owed to the caliber of the competition. Blount’s big games came against the Bills and the Colts. On Sunday, he carried the ball five times and gained 6 yards.
There will be gnashing of teeth over Wes Welker’s second-quarter hit on Aqib Talib (illegal/dirty pick play, not called) which took the Patriots’ best defender out of the game.
“It was a key play in the game,’’ said an agitated Belichick.
The fact that Welker is the man who delivered the hit only makes things worse for Belichick and Patriots owner Bob Kraft. The Patriots pushed Welker out of town, replaced him with the Carl Crawford-esque Danny Amendola (one target Sunday, one drop), and relied on the Kraft family media cartel to tell you that they were better off without the rugged slot receiver.
Now Wes Welker is going to the Super Bowl and the Patriots are stuck in neutral. They are good. But not great. And the proverbial window is closing for Brady.
The Patriots have spoiled us with their success. But they are limited. They are artificially inflated by the AFC East and their dominance at Gillette.
They haven’t won a road playoff game in seven years and when they get to the end of next season, they will not have won a Super Bowl for 10 years.
They provide a lot of thrills and give fans a great ride every season, but they’ve become prisoners of the standard they set 10 years ago when they could win big games against good teams in January.
Not anymore.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.