DENVER – How will 2015 be remembered? How much time we got? Plenty now, I guess.
It will be remembered as the season that began with the Patriots on a killing spree for the first two months of the year, playing transcendent offense and stifling defense and opening up an on-paper gap between them and everybody else in the conference that seemed insurmountable.
And then it got surmounted. Little by little. Week by week. Nate Solder went down. Dion Lewis went down. Julian Edelman broke his foot. Jamie Collins got sick. LeGarrette Blount went down.
Gap gone, the Patriots were reduced to hanging on and waiting for the cavalry.
The team that had all the answers before the test even began was suddenly out of its element. At a loss and taking losses. Four in the final six weeks. All but the final one of the regular season, at Miami, somewhat excusable. To me at least.
They coughed up home-field advantage but the tradeoff wouldn’t matter as long as they had their guys. And that logic held true through the Divisional Playoff game against the Chiefs when everything seemed back to nearly normal.
On the road in Denver? No picnic. But they’d come within a muffed punt of beating the Broncos at altitude in November when the injuries were piled a lot higher than they were on Sunday.
The Patriots’ 2-6 record in Denver with Brady as quarterback? I could offer up an explanation as to why every single one was different in circumstance than the AFC Championship was going to be.
Bill Belichick said on Wednesday that he would “never, ever, ever underestimate Peyton Manning.”
I did. And I underestimated what DeMarcus Ware might do. And Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. And Wade Phillips. And I overestimated how good the Patriots looked against the Chiefs. And what Julian Edelman could do on a broken foot. And what Marcus Cannon could do against Von Miller. And what the lack of a running game might do if the Patriots couldn’t uncover quickly for their short, rhythm passing game.
Even though I asked Tom Brady on Wednesday about the issues presented by having to go to a silent count on the road, I didn’t account for the fact that Miller and Ware were going to time their get-off to center Bryan Stork’s head bobs and be on Brady as soon as the snap (which was often off low and off to his right) arrived.
I underestimated Denver and the altitude which left Gronk cramped up and face down on the sidelines taking a second-half massage.
If the Patriots were the No. 1 seed, if they had beaten the Miami Dolphins and lame-duck head coach Dan Campbell and a team in utter disarray, they would have beaten Denver in Foxboro. Of that I have little doubt. Of course, I had little doubt the Patriots would take care of business in Denver, so take that for what it’s worth today.
On Sunday, the Patriots looked more like the team they’d been in the final eight quarters of the regular season and less like the one they’d been in four quarters against Kansas City.
They went 2 of 15 on third down. They ran for 44 ineffectual yards. They threw desperately in the direction of James White downfield. Sixteen times in all Brady threw to him. He caught five.
Three of the Patriots’ best players helped dig the 17-9 hole the Patriots were in by halftime. Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, Brady threw a pick that the Broncos turned into a touchdown. And that touchdown – like the only other one Denver scored – came when Jamie Collins bit on Owen Daniels’ double-move.
The late-game coaching decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 with 5:56 remaining while trailing by eight deserves second-guessing. A field goal would have cut the lead to five at 20-15 and the Denver offense was struggling to move the ball at that point. The Patriots were assuredly going to get the ball back. And they did. Two more times. Having the specter of needing the touchdown and the two-point conversion hanging over them could have been removed. They opted not to do that and it turned out to be the wrong call.
I don’t believe that anyone’s “legacy” is diminished by what happened Sunday. That Brady kept hauling the Patriots downfield in the last 10 minutes against a defense that was battering him was remarkable. The 40-yard, fourth-and-10 completion to Gronkowski and the touchdown pass with 12 seconds left that brought the Patriots within two on a day when they’d been slapped all over the field was astounding.
It’s a shame for them that a season that started so promisingly ended so bleakly. But there wasn’t shame in the effort, for what that’s worth.
“It’s pretty special to play in this game. Obviously, to advance to the next game, that’s why we all play and work so hard, so it’s disappointing not to have the opportunity to do that,” said Brady. “It takes a lot of good football to do that and beat some great football teams. We lost to a very good football team today. I wish that two-point play would have been different. I’m sure everyone could look at different plays throughout the game when it’s that close and say, ‘man, I wish I would have made that play.’ But I’m proud of the way we fought, and certainly fought to the end.”
The end came before just about anyone expected it to. In a way that we maybe should have seen coming but nobody really did.