DENVER – As many of us have been saying for weeks now, the Patriots were extremely lucky to have won as many games as they did this season, given all the adversity they had to overcome, on and off the field.
It was a miracle they won double-digit games at all, let alone secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Their good fortune had to come to an end at some point, many of us were trying to tell people.
It finally did in Denver.
"It's tough. It's just the nature of the beast," defensive end/co-captain Rob Ninkovich tried to explain immediately afterward, still partially dressed in his game uniform. "They were able to move the ball down the field. We had them in some 3rd-and-long situations and they had really good plays called against the coverages we ran."
"We just couldn't get a stop. They moved the ball on us," added safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "I think they just outplayed us today. They were 100 percent. We got their full offense. We just got outplayed today."
"They played better than we did. They just took advantage of our offense today," echoed left guard/co-captain Logan Mankins. "We didn't do a good enough job today in any aspect. They played great, you've got to give them credit. They filled the holes, made the tackles… they outplayed us. One of those days when they were playing great and we weren't and we needed to play very well to match those guys and just didn't do it."
The Patriots couldn't run the ball. Tom Brady was overthrowing wide – I mean WIDE – open receivers who'd gotten behind the defense and were on their way to the end zone.
On defense, New England was missing easy tackles and allowing Denver receivers to run free like wild stallions. Alfonzo Dennard, in particular, looked unfairly over-matched trying to cover Demaryius Thomas. Even when Peyton Manning was bobbling the ball and throwing wounded-duck passes, his receivers were still finding ways to adjust and make the catch, even when Patriots defenders looked in position to make the play.
The Broncos were the noticeably better team almost from the get-go, as nearly every Patriots admitted in remarks to reporters after the game. Broncos QB Peyton Manning, in particular, was playing at a level much higher than his counterpart, Tom Brady, for most of the afternoon.
"Losing's never easy. But when you have someone as talented as him," Ninkovich said of Manning, "who puts in as much and effort and has done it for so long, it's easier to swallow."
Unless you were a player like Danny Amendola. The receiver admitted that this was the toughest loss he's ever endured in his entire football career.
"It is, yeah. I felt like we fought hard throughout the whole season and to come down to a couple drives there at the end and couldn't get the job done… It wasn't our goal at the end of the year to lose at the end of the season, but we have a bunch of fighters on this team. We fought through a bunch of adversity all season. Just have to get better."
"It was a tough loss overall, to put in the work we did this year," added McCourty. "It's tough when you lose in the playoffs, let alone the AFC Championship. It's a tough ending to the season."
But even in the immediate aftermath, with emotions still raw, several players tried to find a silver lining in the loss.
"Oh, it's tough. To battle all season, to make it to where you want to get to and lose this game, it's very tough," said Mankins. "You're always proud of your team. Someone asked me if I'd rather not get to this point than lose it, and… no, I'll take these games every year. We'll come out, we'll swing every year, we'll try to get here. If we lose, we lose, but we gave our best."
"I'm definitely proud of everybody who stepped up when guys went down with key injuries this whole season," concluded Ninkovich. "It's never easy. We're a very tough team mentally. We have a lot of great talent and good character guys on this team. So, I'm sure we'll be back."
If you're looking for another silver lining in this latest AFC Championship Game loss, here's one:
The last time Patriots had this depleted a team with Brady was '06, when they made it to the AFC title game and lost to Manning. That offseason, the club loaded up and went 16-0 the following fall.
There's hope for 2014, folks.