DENVER – The story lines were almost too good to be true.
In perhaps the final Tom Brady-vs-Peyton Manning showdown, the Patriots were attempting to advance to their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history.
That Super Bowl would just happen to be the 50th, a milestone for the NFL, and it would take place in Brady's hometown of San Francisco, where he's never played in his storied NFL career.
It would be a remarkable achievement for the defending Super Bowl champions, considering the drama of the offseason and the war of attrition they survived during the season. Just making it this far with a bruised and battered roster was a testament to their talent and coaching. But getting to Super Bowl 50, having to go through their house-of-horrors at Mile High? That would be even sweeter.
It just wasn't meant to be.
It was, however, an instant classic of a game and a dramatic ending to a long and entertaining rivalry.
The conventional wisdom entering this match was that Denver's strength was its defense and running game, followed in a distant third place by Manning and his deteriorating arm. On the other side, it was reasoned that with all his offensive weapons back on the field, Brady and the New England offense would be virtually unstoppable. Turned out, conventional wisdom was up-ended completely.
New England couldn't function normally on offense, thanks to a porous offensive line, an inept rushing attack, and some poor decisions by Brady.
A missed extra point by Mr. Automatic, Stephen Gostkowski? A gimme INT by TB12?
These are not the kinds of plays we're used to seeing from the Patriots.
Brady's o-line surrendered a pair of first-half sacks, then another pair in the second half. He was also pressured into incomplete throws on several other occasions throughout the game. New England's inability to run-block effectively also put them in longer-than-necessary third-down situations.
Meanwhile, it was Manning's arm – to some extent – and the elderly tight end Owen Daniels and not his running game that was advancing the football for Denver and putting points on the scoreboard. Yet, it was the Patriots' defense that kept this game to within one score with less than 10 minutes to play. The defense played as well as you could have asked it to in the first half; conversely, Brady and the offense were as dismal as your worst fears could have imagined.
Still, facing a 4th-and-1 from the Denver 16, New England elected to go for it, down eight, instead of kicking the near-certain field goal, then trusting its defense to get them the ball back.
It's a decision that will be second-guessed all offseason.
Down five with the ball at the end, you only need to find the end zone. Down eight, you need that, plus a two-point conversion. The entire dynamic of the final drive changes.
Rob Gronkowski's two game-extending catches on the Patriots' final possession should have been game-winners.
The only second-guessing afterward came from Gostkowski, who shouldered the entire burden of the loss because of his missed PAT in the early going. That, of course, changed the complexion of the game and the way plays were called at the end, but it certainly wasn't the reason the Patriots lost.
He had a hard time seeing it that way afterward though. The normally resilient Gostkowski took that miss harder than any other he's ever had in his prolific career.
"No excuses. Should've made it," he maintained. "I didn't think a miss in the first quarter would make a difference in the game.
"I feel sorry for myself, but I'm not expecting people to feel sorry for me. I work hard to be good. I'm sure I let a lot of people down – a lot of guys on the team, a lot of fans. All I can do is stand up here and take it all on me. I feel like I lost the game. Should've been out there kicking that tying extra point and helping us win in overtime. It's a sickening feeling… I can't find the words."
As you would expect from this tight-knit team, however, his teammates were quick to come to his defense.
"One play doesn't define a game. There were plenty of opportunities for us to overcome that," declared wide receiver Julian Edelman. "Stephen made two field goals to keep us in it. Stephen's a stud. We love him to death. No chance it's on him."
"He made every other kick after that. So, to me, he's the best kicker in the league. Always has been," remarked cornerback Logan Ryan.
"No one's perfect. That's life. We're all going to make mistakes," cornerback Malcolm Butler pointed out. "We're in this together. He missed it… WE missed it. It's a team effort."
"We fought our asses off. I'm proud of our group," wide receiver Danny Amendola insisted. "We didn't get where we wanted to go, but I'm proud of everyone in this organization."
It will take some time for these Patriots to heal from this loss.
Eventually, they'll come to understand, as many of us already do, that it was a remarkable achievement that New England was able to persevere all season and make it this far given the on- and off-field obstacles they had to overcome.
It was almost too good to be true.