Over the final days of the year, WEEI.com will count down the top 14 stories of 2014 in Boston sports. This is No. 6: Patriots lose to Broncos in AFC championship game. To read other stories in this series, click here.
Alfonzo Dennard and the Patriots couldn’t keep up with Demaryius Thomas and the Broncos in the AFC title game. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Patriots’ 2013 season was not quite like the ones fans are used to.
Sure, New England boasted a solid 12-4 record, clinched the AFC East well before season’s end, earned a first-round bye and breezed past its divisional-round opponent to reach its third straight AFC championship game. But this Patriots team limped its way through the season as a group pillaged by losses to a number of key players.
It started with tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was arrested weeks before training camp and subsequently released by the team before being charged with murder. But that was just the start of the Pats‘ woes, as the likes of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski were lost for the season with major injuries.
However, fans still sought that coveted fourth Vince Lombardi trophy after the Patriots won five of their last six regular-season games to win their fifth straight division title, then crushed the Colts, 43-22, led by 166 yards and four touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount.
Up next, as expected, was Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Broncos. It would be the 15th time Tom Brady and Manning would square off, the fourth time they would meet in the playoffs and their second matchup of the season.
The Patriots rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit to beat the Broncos, 34-31, in overtime at Gillette Stadium in the regular season. But with a 13-3 record to end the year, the Broncos hosted the Jan. 19 meeting for the right to play in the Super Bowl.
With all that was unique and difficult about the Patriots’ season, one thing was similar to the year before: It ended with a disappointing loss in the conference title game.
This time, the Broncos manhandled the Patriots defense for 507 total yards in a 26-16 beatdown in a game that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard read.
“You can’t win when you can’t get off the field,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said after the game. “That’s basic fundamental football. They do a good job of keeping the sticks moving with various formations.”
Manning torched the Pats secondary for 400 yards and two touchdowns while completing 32 of his 43 passes. The task of slowing down Manning and his arsenal of weapons that included Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and former Patriot Wes Welker became even more difficult when cornerback Aqib Talib left the game early in the second quarter with a knee injury on an apparent pick play by Welker across the middle of the field.
It would be Talib’s last play in a Patriots uniform, as he signed a six-year deal with the Broncos in the offseason.
Talib, who was assigned to cover Demaryius Thomas, certainly was missed, as Thomas made seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown midway through the third quarter that gave the Broncos a commanding 20-3 lead.
“I feel badly for Aqib, the way the play turned out,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the next day. “I went back and watched it, which I didn’t get a chance to do yesterday. It was a deliberate play to take out Aqib. No attempt to get open. I’ll let the league handle the discipline on that. It’s not for me to decide, but it’s one of the worst plays I’ve seen. And that’s all I am going to say about that.”
Said Welker 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. It wasn’t a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that.
“I hope he’s OK — he’s a great player and a big part of their defense.”
The Pats struggled offensively as well. The dangerous running attack from the week before was held to just 64 total rushing yards while Brady completed 24-of-38 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. Ten of those completions went to Julian Edelman.
“They played better than we did,” offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. “They were good against the run, good against the pass. They just took advantage of our offense today. We didn’t do a good enough job today, in any aspect.”
The Patriots posted five fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, but a 23-3 deficit with 12 minutes to play proved too much to overcome against the AFC’s top team.
Brady connected with Edelman for a 7-yard touchdown to cut the Denver lead to 23-10 with 9:26 to play. After a Matt Prater field goal made it 26-10 Broncos, the Pats scored again on a 5-yard touchdown run by Brady with 3:07 left. But Shane Vereen failed to convert the two-point conversion run, and time eventually ran out on the Patriots.
“There were a lot of opportunities in the game that, if we were able to coach better, play better, execute better in any of those areas, it would have given us a chance,” Belichick said.
The Broncos were crushed by the Seahawks, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII two weeks later.