The New England Patriots lost to a better team.
How long has it been since the Patriots could honestly say that in a postseason loss?
The case could be made that the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and New York Giants in playoff games they should have won from 2009-2012.
No one was singing the "just happy to be here" song leading up to the AFC Championship game, but now that they handily lost to the Denver Broncos, 26-16 in a game that wasn't even close until the final minutes, it's easier to realize what an accomplishment it would have been for this team to make it to the Super Bowl, and possibly even win it all.
Who knows how far the Patriots could have gone with Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Tommy Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer in the fold, but you can say that the Patriots got as far as they should have, given the circumstances.
"I'm proud of our team and the way we fought," said quarterback Tom Brady. "We've got a lot to be proud of, and we'll be back at it next year."
They fought that way all season long, and even as the margin of error grew slimmer and slimmer, a comeback always seemed possible. That says a great deal about this coach and quarterback.
Thinking about the missed opportunity as a result of injuries will inevitably sting, but every team deals with injuries. The Patriots, it just so happened, were ill equipped to deal with injuries to three former All-Pro players among others.
The Broncos dealt with injuries of their own, to left tackle Ryan Clady, linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. and safety Rahim Moore (two former All-Pros in Clady and Miller). Yet, their edge was considered slightly better than home-field advantage at four points, and even that proved to be generous in the final outcome.
They were favored for a reason. The Broncos were just the better team.
"They've got a lot of good players," said head coach Bill Belichick. "[They're a] tough team to match up against with all the good skill players they have -- backs, tight ends, receivers -- so they have obviously a good football team, good offensive system, good quarterback."
Rest assured, the Patriots will be right back in it next year. They are still the best team in the AFC East, and if all else fails -- as this year proved to us -- Brady and Belichick are still good for 10-plus wins on their own.
This season had already been one of the finest coaching jobs of Belichick's career as Patriots head coach. To cap it off with a trip to the Super Bowl would have bordered on the miraculous.
Their best bet to get back to the big game -- and win it -- is to make sure they don't have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders as they try to sneak through that window before it shuts.
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