This never should have happened.
The New England Patriots, a team on a mission that started the season 10-0, are bounced from Super Bowl contention because they outsmarted themselves and wound up having to win a road game in a very tough venue in the AFC Championship game.
The top-seeded Denver Broncos played great defense and beat the Patriots, 20-18, at Sports Authority Field Sunday. Intrepid Tom Brady drove the Pats to a last-minute touchdown and pulled them to within 2 points in the closing seconds, but Brady’s potential game-tying 2-point conversion pass was tipped and intercepted, ending the Patriots season. And so New England’s Revenge Tour that followed the Deflategate mess ended with a whimper in the Mile High City.
Sorry to say this, but the 2015-16 Patriots are something of a myth. They are forever the fortunate champs of the hideous AFC East, but they cannot win a road playoff game. They have not won a road playoff game in more than nine years (San Diego, January 2007).
Besting the pathetic Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets annually assures the Pats a first-round bye and second-round home game every year, but does not prepare them for the noise and disruption of Sports Authority Field in January. The Pats have simply forgotten how to win in enemy territory.
The worst part of this unsatisfying ending is that the Patriots are all done because they did not take care of business in Miami on the final weekend of the regular season.
The Pats could have played the Broncos in Foxborough Sunday. New England’s (No. 2) seeding has nothing to do with unfortunate losses to the Eagles and Jets at the end of the season. Those were contested games, played when we still had no clear vision of the AFC playoff alignment. The season finale is quite different. On that day, Jan. 3, the Patriots knew their situation and owned absolute control of their fate. They played a 1 p.m. game in Miami against a team that was ready to hit the golf course. And they tanked. They worked on their running game. They insulted the Dolphins. And they paid the price. With Brady and Rob Gronkowski both exposed to hard hits, the Pats lost to the Dolphins, 20-10. They forfeited the top seed in the AFC. And it came back to bite them Sunday. The Pats got their butts kicked by a team that all of New England laughed at all week.
Remember the narrative? Denver’s aging quarterback Peyton Manning was Willie Mays in the 1973 World Series, a fading star who hung around too long. The Pats were indominable after their mighty 7-point playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs. They were going to surge into Super Bowl 50 and Brady was going to establish himself at the Greatest of All Time by winning his fifth Super Bowl.
So what happened? The Broncos spanked the Patriots Sunday afternoon. Sorry to remind you but Peyton Manning, the guy you were all feeling sorry for earlier in the week, now has won three consecutive AFC Championship games against Tom Brady.
New England gave it a great shot at the finish, and closed to within a 2-point conversion of sending the game into overtime in the final minute. But it was too little, too late. And it should never have come to that juncture.
The Patriots are out of the Super Bowl tournament because they had to win a game on the road and they are no longer a team that can win a playoff game on the road. They’ve lost their road toughness. Or maybe they are just out of practice.
In the old days, when the Patriots were truly great, they could go to Pittsburgh (twice) and win the AFC Championship game. No more. Now they can only win playoff games in their friendly crib in Foxborough.
That’s what makes Sunday’s loss so painful. Is there any Patriot fan who thinks the Pats would have lost Sunday’s game if it had been played in Foxborough? Of course not. The Broncos are not very good. They are likely to be cannon fodder for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. The Broncos look like the same Broncos who were smoked by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Patriots should be playing in Super Bowl 50. They should have stayed the course and put themselves at Gillette for the entire AFC tournament. But they chose another path. And now they are done. What a waste.