DENVER -- Bill Belichick didn’t want to stop talking.
In the media workroom at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in the moments after Sunday’s 26-16 loss to the Broncos, the postgame press conference involving the Patriots coach had ground to an awkward halt, and Patriots PR chief Stacey James had stepped in to wrap things up.
But Belichick wanted to continue. He wanted to give the 2013 Patriots the respect they had worked so hard to earn.
“I’m proud of the team -- proud to be their coach,” Belichick said quietly, with some emotion in his voice.
New England had fallen short, dropping a disappointing 26-16 decision to the Broncos in the AFC title game. The game marked the end to the season for the 2013 Patriots, a team that had distinguished itself with an extraordinary amount of mental toughness, rising to just about every challenge. Whether it was injury, the opposition or simply the grind of another eventful season, the Patriots had met almost all comers along the way, and had managed to persevere to a 12-4 mark and the No. 2 seed in the AFC. They were a win away from a trip back to the Super Bowl.
But in the end, the second-quarter injury to Aqib Talib -- after wide receiver Wes Welker went crashing into him on a questionable play -- was simply the tipping point for a team that had fought through a ton just to get to that point.
It’s one thing to battle through injury and lean on the “next man up” mantra. It’s another to make it through to the conference championship game with $27.814 million worth of contracts on injured reserve (according to noted salary cap expert Brian McIntyre). Vince Wilfork. Rob Gronkowski. Jerod Mayo. Sebastian Vollmer. Tommy Kelly. Brandon Spikes. All were lost for the season at some point in the year.
And now, Talib? For the Patriots, next man up had become man down.
Almost predictably, with Talib on the sideline for the rest of the afternoon, Peyton Manning and the Broncos passing game took advantage. Denver choked the life out of the Patriots, grinding out a series of impressive drives -- the one that lasted 7:08 to open the third quarter was an absolute clinic -- while pushing an early 10-3 lead to 23-3 by early in the fourth quarter. The Patriots eventually cut the lead to 10 but couldn’t get any closer.
“I wish we could have done a little bit of a better job today,” Belichick said. “Especially me.”
(The play on which Talib went down was a questionable one that drew the ire of several New England players and the coaching staff -- it appeared Welker was making a habit of cutting over the middle, making contact and not getting called for offensive pass interference. For his part, Welker pled not guilty after the game. “It was one of those plays where it’s kind of a rough play, and I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided,” Welker said. “It wasn’t a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that.” Talib and Belichick wouldn’t comment on the play.)
But ultimately, it wasn’t just the loss of Talib that doomed the Patriots. They were outplayed in pretty much every facet of the game. Denver scored on six of its eight possessions, only punting once and closing out the game with a kneel-down. The Patriots defense was unable to get off the field on third down (the Broncos were 7-for-13). Denver special teams forced New England to start every one of its eight possessions on its own 20-yard line.
And Shane Vereen (34 yards rushing, 59 yards receiving) and Julian Edelman (10 catches, 89 yards, one touchdown) were the only two offensive skill position players who distinguished themselves as the Denver defense did a terrific job of bottling up New England.
It all means that the Patriots will fall short of a Super Bowl title. Again.
“It’s tough to get to this point,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who struggled in the loss. “In the next two weeks there is only one team that is going to win that game. That is a tough one to win. Anytime you come up short in what you are trying to accomplish, it’s not a great feeling.
“I’m proud of our team and the way we fought. We have a lot to be proud of.”
Indeed -- there was a lot to like about these Patriots, and even though they didn’t reach the ultimate goal, with the benefit of hindsight this may even be recalled as a successful season. With this many injuries, there’s something to be said for just reaching football’s final four. With that in mind, as the first moments of the offseason began Belichick took one last look back at the 2013 season and did a nice job of providing an epitaph for a team that exceeded many of the expectations after it lost a laundry list of Pro Bowlers.
“You take the instruction that you’re given, you work hard on it, and you get positive results, you build on those, correct your mistakes. Build on your positive results and keep going,” he said. “I think as a team they’ve done that, and individually, that’s been kind of the trademark of the players on this team: making corrections, working hard, moving on, trying to get better, not getting caught up in what happened in the past. Just trying to do a better job the next time out -- I think that improvement served us well all year.
“I thought they played hard all year, played competitively every single week -- some weeks we played better than others, but there was never a lack of effort or toughness. Everybody [tried] to do their best, and I totally respect the team for that, and what they did.
“I’m proud to be their coach,” he added. “That’s how I feel about it.”
But at the same time, the sting will remain.
“To get this far and not finish it,” said running back LeGarrette Blount, “it sucks.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Sunday afternoon.
THIS WAS NOT TOM BRADY’S FINEST HOUR
The quarterback missed some key connections out of the gate with Julian Edelman (one on a pass play that would have gone for six), Matthew Slater and Austin Collie, and was one of the main reasons the Patriots were unable to maintain any sort of offensive consistency early on. And when the defense needed the offense to assert itself in the first half, Brady and the offense weren’t able to respond -- the Patriots punted on their first three possessions, two of which were three-and-outs. He was able to assemble a pair of nice second-half drives of nine and 10 plays in length that ended with touchdowns (one on a seven-yard pass play to Edelman and one that was capped off with a five-yard touchdown run, his first scoring scramble of the year). While the final line is probably aesthetically more pleasing than anything he posted over the last month -- he was 24-for-38 for 277 yards, his highest yardage output since the Dec. 15 loss to the Dolphins in Miami -- in truth, it was a ragged afternoon for the quarterback and most of his offense.
YOU CAN SCORE ONE FOR JACK DEL RIO
Dating back to his time as the head coach in Jacksonville, the Broncos defensive coordinator entered the game 0-7 in his career against Brady. The quarterback had a stellar stat line against Del Rio-coached defenses, with a 73 percent completion rate, 17 touchdowns and zero picks. And while Denver wasn’t able to pick off Brady on Sunday, the Broncos did do a tremendous job limiting all aspects of the New England offense, including the quarterback’s effectiveness. Up front, the Broncos were able to stuff the Patriots running backs relatively easily right out of the gate, and they were able to prevent the Patriots from getting any sort of offensive consistency throughout the afternoon. (The New England running game, which had averaged 185 yards per game over the previous four contests, had just 16 rushing yards in the first half and 64 on the day. Blount had six yards on five carries and was a nonfactor in the second half as the Patriots had to pass just to keep pace.) Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton delivered a big fourth-down sack and played a big role in keeping the New England running game stuck in neutral all afternoon long. Robert Ayers added another sack, as Patriots were unable to find any sort of offensive rhythm for much of the day.
JULIAN EDELMAN HAD A TERRIFIC YEAR
Really, there’s no other way around it -- on Sunday, he proved time and again that he has become Brady’s most trusted target. The Patriots worked to get him alone on the field, in space, and he was really the only offensive skill position player who rose to the occasion, and the only pass catcher to gain anything close to separation from the Denver defensive backs. He had a game-high 15 targets and 10 catches, and he ended with 89 catches and a touchdown, a seven-yard pass from Brady roughly midway through the fourth quarter that cut the Denver lead to 13. Edelman was almost tearful after the game talking about free agency and his future, and will present the Patriots with a sizable question this offseason when it comes to his free agency.
DANNY AMENDOLA? NOT SO MUCH
Conversely, this game was an indictment on Amendola and his first season in New England. Some of it could be because of game plan, scheme or quick decisions on the part of the quarterback, but for someone who is compensated like Amendola to come up so incredibly short in a game of this magnitude was embarrassing. He ended the day with one target -- on a pass he DROPPED -- and zero catches. He had his moments over the course of the 2013 season, including two games when he had 10 catches in a pair of gutty wins. But there were far too many days on the other end of the spectrum when he simply fell off the radar screen, including Sunday. It was a forgettable final stretch of the season for Amendola, who ended up with six catches over the final four games of the season (two regular season games and two postseason contests). Not the sort of way you want to end your first year in Foxboro.
RATHER REMARKABLY, THEY HAD A CHANCE TO GET BACK INTO IT
The Patriots had a pair of fourth-quarter drives that ultimately allowed them to nose their way back to within 10 with 3:07 remaining -- the second one culminated with a rare Brady touchdown run to make it 26-16, and a successful two-point conversion would have made it a one-possession game. For a team that had launched more than its share of late comebacks, it was enough to inspire a glimmer of hope in a sea of orange. But the run attempt by Vereen was stopped short of the goal line, which effectively ended things. “It would have changed the game quite a bit,” Belichick said. “That would have certainly changed the strategy, [as] it would have been an eight-point game instead of a 10-point game.”
JAMIE COLLINS COULD REALLY BE SOMETHING
At first glance, Collins was the biggest defensive standout for the Patriots on Sunday. The rookie linebacker made some impressive plays in both in the running game and in coverage. (He struggled at times against Denver tight end Julius Thomas -- he was victimized on one big gain, but that puts him in pretty good company, quite frankly.) On Sunday, he finished with seven tackles (six solo) and a pass defensed. He’s not an elite level linebacker, but the hyperathletic defender out of Southern Miss certainly showed enough to be considered a key part of the New England defense in 2014.
THERE’S A DELICATE BALANCE IN THE SECONDARY
The loss of Talib -- and the resulting impact on New England’s pass defense -- was eerily reminiscent of last season’s AFC title game, when the veteran corner went down early and the tenuous house of cards that is the New England secondary came crashing down. On Sunday against the Broncos, he left in the second quarter after Welker collided with him and never returned. As we explained previously, there were several other factors at play in New England’s defeat, but losing Talib was a serious blow to the secondary, one it wasn’t able to rebound from. A smart veteran like Manning knew what was going on, and he quickly targeted replacements Logan Ryan (the rookie was occasionally overwhelmed in coverage) and Alfonzo Dennard (who is too undersized to keep up with an elite receiver like Demaryius Thomas). Both struggled when it came to both tackling and coverage while the Broncos passing game powered the Denver offense at the end of the second and start of the third quarter. Talib, who limped out of the locker room after a quick 30-second Q&A with the media after the game, will enter the free agent marketplace as a sizable question mark: He has shown flashes of brilliance in his year-plus with the Patriots, but is he worth committing to long term? And if he leaves, what sort of impact does that have on the secondary?
THE PUNTER DESERVES SOME CREDIT
Rookie Ryan Allen -- who was crunched in last week’s divisional playoff win over the Colts and was a question mark coming into Sunday’s game against Denver -- had himself a very good afternoon. In the first half with the game in doubt, he was able to deliver three booming punts that averaged 49 yards. All three of them dropped inside the Denver 20 and helped provide the New England defense with pretty good field position. (Of course, the Patriots didn’t do anything with it, but that wasn’t on Allen, who did not punt the rest of the day.) It was actually a decent day for New England’s special teamers -- in limited opportunities, they performed fairly well. Stephen Gostkowski, who will now head to the Pro Bowl because Denver’s Matt Prater will be going to the Super Bowl, nailed a 47-yard field goal to open the scoring for the Patriots in the second quarter, and added a pair of touchbacks on his four kickoffs. The Denver kicking game was very impressive, as New England’s returners were a nonfactor. Prater put all seven of his kickoffs into the end zone, while Denver punter Britt Colquitt boomed his only punt attempt into the end zone as well.
IT WILL BE AN EVENTFUL OFFSEASON
The Patriots enter the offseason with a number of very interesting questions, including four major free agents they have to make a decision on: linebacker Brandon Spikes, wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount and cornerback Aqib Talib. (While Edelman said he wasn’t thinking about free agency yet, Blount said he was interested in returning to New England.) Then there’s the matter of how the free agent market might shape up, as well as questions about the draft (the Patriots have one selection each in the first, second, third, fourth and seventh rounds, as well as two in the sixth). The offseason has begun -- Belichick noted that when it comes to preparing for the next few months the Patriots “have a little bit of catching up to do. So, starting [Monday] we’re on to 2014.”