DENVER — No perfection.
No Gronk for a while, maybe.
The road to the Super Bowl just got harder.
This was as bad as it gets for a team that always seems to be on the happy side of the heartstopping games. What happened to the Patriots on Sunday night was like something that used to happen to the old hard-luck Red Sox.
The always-clutch Pats blew a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead, lost their second-best player to injury, and saw their dreams of perfection shattered on the frozen tundra in the Mile High City. The game ended when when C.J. Anderson scampered 48 yards and crossed the goal line in the third minute of overtime to give the Broncos a 30-24 victory.
Losing one game after a 10-0 start is not that big of a deal. Losing Rob Gronkowski would be quite another matter. It was not immediately clear how bad Gronk was hurt (a league source said after the game the injury was not believed to be serious), but you don’t have to be Amos Alonzo Mortensen to know that New England simply cannot expect to win a Super Bowl without Gronkowski. The Patriots lost too many weapons on the way to 10-0.
If the Pats fail to achieve the ultimate goal of this season fueled by the fallout of Deflategate, fans will forever cite this Sunday in Denver as the day the music died.
The madness started with the Patriots leading, 21-7, early in the fourth when New England rookie Chris Harper muffed a punt. Denver took advantage with a quick touchdown, cutting the lead to 21-14. Still, the Pats seemed to be in good shape.
Disaster struck with 2:49 left in regulation when Gronkowski lay writhing in the snow after getting tangled up on a pass incompletion downfield. Brady stood over Gronk while the cart was summoned. Matthew Slater said a prayer. Gronk was able to get to his feet before hopping on the cart. He was later seen walking on his own power after leaving the X-ray room at the stadium.
“He’s been through a lot,’’ Brady said of Gronkowski. “He’s a tough guy. All of our fingers are crossed.’’
Forget about Next Man Up. If Gronk is lost, it’s Last Man Standing. That man is Tom Brady, but even Superman Tom can’t overcome the losses of Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola AND Gronk. The Pats are going to make the playoffs and they are probably going to get a bye, but Brady simply needs more help if the offense wants to score enough to win in Santa Clara.
The way things were trending, you knew there was probably a loss on the horizon. The Pats in recent weeks were roughed up by the Giants and Bills, but escaped both times thanks to their own clutch play and the stupidity of the opposition. There was some luck involved, too.
All that good karma went the other way Sunday. The Pats didn’t get the benefit of the calls (prepare for a week of fans complaining that the refs gave the Broncos the game) and saw Peyton Manning’s understudy, Brock Osweiler, make big plays down the stretch in his first home start.
Even after Gronk was carted off the field, New England still led by 4 points and seemed to be in command. But while New England fretted about Gronk, Osweiler made big throws and moved the Broncos 83 yards in five plays, capping the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell. Denver led, 24-21, with 1:09 left.
Sixty-nine seconds was plenty of time for Brady to set up Stephen Gostkowski for a 47-yard, game-tying field goal as time expired.
The Pats won the toss in overtime, of course, but went nowhere. Get used to it. Without Gronk, Brady is out of options.
Denver took over on its 43 and needed only three plays for Anderson to take it to the house and send the Pats home with their first loss.
The first quarter was a complete clown show by the home team. Ever the Fraidy Cat, coach Gary Kubiak had his team ready to capitulate right from the opening coin flip (which, naturally, was won by the Pats, who, naturally, deferred). After Denver’s lightning-fast three-and-out, followed by a horrible punt, the Patriots got to start their first drive at the Broncos 47. Easy. Brady marched the Patriots across the goal line in four quick plays, capping the 123-second drive with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Gronk.
Everything gets harder now. Except the schedule.
New England should crush the Eagles next week. After that, there’s a challenging game with the red-hot Houston Texans. The only hard game after that will be at the Meadowlands after Christmas.
“Could have coached better, could have played better,” Belichick said after the loss. “But guys really played hard, I have all the respect in the world for this football team. The way they competed. Disappointed in the result, but we’ll get back to work this week and get ready for Philadelphia.”
The Pats have some pressure to win them all now. Perfection is gone, but the first-round bye remains critical.
Getting Gronk back on the field is most critical of all.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.