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Stock Watch: True team loss ends Patriots season in Denver

Brady vs. Manning 17 was, as many of its predecessors had been, a classic battle with two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks at the center of it all.

Unfortunately for the defending champion Patriots and their fans, it's not a game anyone will want to remember in the end.

New England had its chances, but was beaten in many ways in all three phases of the game in the 20-18 loss the Broncos. Sure New England had an opportunity to tie the game on a two-point try after Rob Gronkowski's late touchdown. Sure there was a Stephen Gostkowski onside kick try as a last-ditch effort to pull something out.

But it was too little, too late.

The All-Pro kicker Gostkowski took the blame for the loss fully on his shoulders thanks to a missed extra point on the visitor's first touchdown of the day. It was a standup gesture by a true standup guy a few weeks after he noted the professionalism of Vikings kicker Blair Walsh after he missed a short field goal on Wild Card Weekend to end Minnesota's season.

"It's a nightmare scenario," Gostkowski said. "I let a lot of people down. It's not a good feeling."

But the missed first-quarter PAT, the first missed by a Bill Belichick team under the new longer PAT rules that the New England coach proposed, was far from the biggest issue of the evening.

Tom Brady lost what may have been the final battle in the long history with Peyton Manning, at least in part because he was hit a crazy 20 times behind an offensive line that couldn't block Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and others.

Brady's two interceptions - including one to Miller that easily could have been a pick-six but set up a short drive to Denver's second touchdown - compared to no picks for Manning, who turned the ball over so often this season.

Despite an offense that once again included Julian Edelman and Gronkowski, New England had just two conversions on 15 third-down tries. The Brady-led unit punted three straight times to open the game, turned the ball over twice and really never found much rhythm until late in the final quarter.

"First of all, congratulate Denver on AFC Championship. They played a little bit better than we did today," Belichick said. "Proud of our guys, they fought till they end, like they always do.

"Lot of big plays in the game. Any one of them could have made a bit of a difference. It's such a fine line today between winning and losing. If we could have all done a little bit more it could have been a different result.

"Crash landing to the end of the season like it always is in the National Football League."

Brady made it clear that the crash landing was keyed by a Denver defense that crashed into him early and often throughout the quarterback's fifth-straight AFC Championship Game.

"It was tough for us to ever get into a rhythm. They have a great rush," Brady said, heaping plenty of praise on the Broncos defense.  "It was a tough day. It was a hard-fought football game. We made a lot of plays. But there were a lot of plays we didn't make.

"We never could play with the lead. We could never play on our terms. It was an uphill battle all day."

An uphill battle that the Patriots never could climb. Manning moves on to take on the Panthers and attempt to get his second ring, an aging start former MVP against the rising star quarterback likely to take home this year's MVP award. A torch-passing theme from Manning to Cam Newton will certainly be brought up the next two weeks.

The Patriots move on to a sudden offseason. They failed to defend their title. They came up short yet again on the road in Denver, Brady's New England squad falling to 2-7 in the Mile High City, 0-3 in the postseason.

"I'm proud of the way we fought today," Brady said. "We just came up a little bit short."

It was another impressive season overall in New England but it came to a disappointing finish.

Before putting this one in the history books, here are some of the few highs and many lows from a tough, true team loss in Denver:

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Rob Gronkowski -The tight end had a pair of touchdowns to boost the Patriots in the Divisional Round just to get to Denver. Sunday evening, he was really the only New England offensive player to do his job, even while seemingly battling fatigue/injury. Gronkowski finished with eight catches for a game-high 144 yards and a 4-yard touchdown. Gronkowski had a 40-yard catch on fourth down on the final drive to his fourth-down touchdown. Even though the Broncos did a decent job on the big tight end at times, he still finished as one of the few Patriots who had a big day.

Run Defense - Belichick told his team earlier this week that the Broncos had rushed for 100 yards in 10 games and won nine of them this season. Clearly he wanted his team to hold the Denver offense to less than 100 yards. And, by just a yard, the New England front did that. The home offense had 30 rushes for 99 yards and a 3.3-yard average. That included one 30-yard gash for C.J. Anderson, who had 16 carries for 72 yards. For the most part, though the defensive line and linebackers were good enough against the run.

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Offensive line - Certainly specific names could be included here. Marcus Cannon was bad on the right side, mostly getting beaten by Miller. Sebastian Vollmer struggled on the left side, mostly beaten by Ware. Josh Kline struggled inside, often with Wolfe. Cameron Fleming was beaten as an extra blocker on the edge. This was a bad night for the entire line, which means Dave DeGuglielmo deserves some blame too. The line had its ups and downs this year - and in this postseason - but it ended on a major down as Brady was sacked four times, hit 20 times and left fighting for his life on almost every snap.

Tom Brady - Much of Brady's struggles can be attributed to the offensive line's dismal evening in pass protection. But even before the hits took their toll, Brady was off. He threw a pair of first-half interceptions. He overlooked Miller on the pass rusher's pick, but should not have. He short-armed a few throws. He seemed to throw some into the ground. Brady has had some bad days in Denver and added another to that list in this AFC title game loss.

Team -The Patriots started their dynasty in 2001 by being announced as a team for Super Bowl XXXVI. They won so often as a team over the years. They lost as a team Sunday evening in Denver. Gostkowski made a mistake on his PAT attempt. Bill Belichick probably made a mistake by winning the coin toss and choosing not to defer for just the third time since the rule was changed in 2008. Logan Ryan struggled at times in coverage. Jamie Collins struggled in coverage as well, allowing two touchdowns. There were mistakes in all three phases that contributed to the loss. The Patriots lost as they have won so many times - as a team.

What do you think of our lists? Let us know with a comment below!

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