The Brady-Belichick magic just doesn’t work in Denver
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DENVER — This is the place where the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick magic doesn't work, dissolving into a haze of missed opportunities and high-altitude anguish. This is the place where the other guys do their job, rely on the next man up, and force the opponent into self-harm. This is the place where the Patriots still haven't won a playoff game in team history, a fact that a coach and quarterback who major in making history found immutable on Sunday.
It was another Rocky Mountain low for the Patriots, as after a valiant fourth-quarter rally they couldn't convert the game-tying 2-point conversion with 12 seconds left and fell, 20-18, to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. There will be no fifth Super Bowl title, no repeat, and no satisfying sight of NFL commissioner/Deflategate chief inspector Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots. Just Sunday silence until next season.
If Brady and Belichick were a cellphone carrier then Denver would be a dead zone, where wins, seasons, and sound decision-making get unexpectedly disconnected. In this game, a constantly harassed Brady was nearly decapitated by Denver's top-ranked defense, which sacked Brady four times and delivered an astonishing 20 quarterback hits.
Brady threw the ball a playoff career-high 56 times. He completed 27 of them for 310 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, the first time in his 31-game postseason career he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes.
Frankly, he was lucky to get most of those passes off with the Broncos' front seven, led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, running a relay race to the backfield.
If there is a lesson from Brady-Manning XVII, it's one that the Manning backers have been touting for years — the best quarterback doesn't always win these matchups, the more complete team does.
Reincarnated as a game manager, Manning was solid if not spectacular. He made no mistakes and enough plays, particularly in the first half, to reach the Super Bowl for the fourth time in his career and seize the upper hand in playoff meetings with Brady (3-2).
Manning (17 of 32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns) isn't serving chicken parmesan to his critics. He's serving crow.
The Patriots lost this game the moment the plane landed in Denver. The Patriots are now 0-4 all time in the playoffs in Denver. Brady and Belichick have lost thrice. Brady is 2-7 all time in this stadium, and one of those wins came over Tim Tebow.
There is just bad mojo at Mile High, which is likely why some fans are ruing the team didn't go all out to get home-field advantage, even though Belichick made the proper call by prioritizing health.
If you believe in bad omens and 5,280-foot voodoo then this game did little to dissuade you. There were several strange occurrences in a first half that saw the Patriots trailing, 17-9, to Old Man Manning and the Broncos.
The Patriots won the coin toss and instead of deferring they elected to receive. They picked up one first down and had to punt. Brady threw a pair of horrendous interceptions, one to Miller that set up Owen Daniels's second touchdown reception of the half, giving Denver a 14-6 lead.
Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point for the first time since his rookie year, which forced the Patriots to need a 2-point conversion to tie the game after a heroic final drive that ended with Rob Gronkowski answering Brady's prayer on fourth and goal from the 4 with 12 seconds left.
"Steve is the best kicker in the league," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "He has come through clutch for us all year. I definitely wouldn't put it all on Steve."
It was Belichick who had lobbied for the ridiculous rule change to make the most innocuous play in football more competitive by pushing it back to the 15 — a 33-yard kick in the teeth for his team.
"I think we all feel as coaches, players, all of us there is such a fine line between winning and losing," said Belichick. "If we had all done just a little bit more then it might have been a different result. But it wasn't. It's a crash landing to the end of the season, like it usually is in the National Football League."
Belichick congratulates Denver on AFC Championship
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said they could have done more to win the AFC Championship against the Broncos.
Brady and the Patriots trailed, 20-12, with 10:02 left in the game after a Brandon McManus 31-yard field goal. They got inside the Denver 20 on all three of their fourth-quarter drives, but came away with just 6 points.
In an uncharacteristic game-management misjudgment, Belichick went for it on fourth and 1 from the Denver 16 with 6:03 left, instead of kicking a field goal that would have pulled the Patriots within 5.
The Patriots ran a misdirection throwback pass from Brady to Julian Edelman that was snuffed out by Chris Harris Jr. This is what happens when you don't have a running game to protect and complement your franchise quarterback.
The Patriots reached the Denver 9 on their next drive, but the Broncos held on fourth and 6 from the 14.
Brady got the ball back at the 50 with 1:52 to go. He finally got the Patriots in the end zone in the second half with a fourth-down floater to Gronk (eight catches for 144 yards) for 40 yards, and an alley-oop TD toss to the tight end on fourth and goal from the 4 to keep hope alive.
But it wasn't meant to be, not at Mile High, as Brady's 2-point conversion pass to Edelman never had a chance.
"We never could play with a lead. We never could play on our terms, so it was an uphill battle all day," said Brady.
In a season that started with the specter of a debate about air pressure in footballs, it was thin air and constant pressure that ended the Patriots season.
Denver (the city and the team) did what Deflategate, outside distractions, and injuries could not, stop the Patriots cold.
This place is Hades with Helmets for the Patriots.
Postgame Analysis: AFC Championship
The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin gives an analysis of why the Patriots lost 18-20 against the Broncos in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.